I’m reading a fascinating book right now. It’s called Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Vintage International; $16) and it’s almost as if the universe has found the perfect book for me at this moment in my life. Not that I struggle with status anxiety. Oh no, quite the contrary. I have hip shoes. After my recent trip to Fantasy Cuts in Vancouver I even have a hip haircut. But if I were to struggle with status anxiety, with the idea that I don’t measure up based on society’s expectations, if I were to be crippled by constantly comparing myself to those around me, then this would be the perfect book.
Consider this quote, for example, from page 25. Or you know what, I’m just gonna paste the picture here. Read block “1.”
So what’s so fascinating about this? Tell me, Mark, you’re saying, essentially screaming, what’s so damn fascinating about this. And I’ll tell you. Just let me take a sip of my pu-erh kombucha first.
Here’s what I found so fascinating about this quote: the fact that as our ability to lead more full lives, more materially abundant lives, our status about possible deprivation has increased. In other words, yeah, we’re capable of having so much shit these days, buying so much shit, eating so much shit, consuming so much shit, but what do we actually do? Worry about the shit we’re not consuming.
Which is sad.
Yesterday, while walking back from The Point at Port Angeles, where the waves were not that good, I had a bit of an epiphany (see: apostraphe). I thought to myself, Man, fall is really beautiful here. Usually at this time of year I’m preparing to leave. But now instead of fleeing from the seasons I’m actually enjoying them. I mean, they even have maple flavored coffee samples at Trader Joe’s.
I also had another epiphany: that I am beholden to no one. I made a promise to Clarita, my Chilean friend/mentor, to settle down, and the reason I’m keeping that is because she said it would cause her physical pain if I broke it. We shook hands. Twice. And so that’s why I’m keeping it. Not for me, though of course it has benefited me and that’s the whole point, but for her.
Other than that, I can do whatever the heck I want.
Which brings me back to status anxiety.
How much of what you do everyday is based primarily on your family’s, your friends’, and society’s expectations of you? I would wager quite a bit. I know that’s true at least for me. Sometimes I wonder if pretty much everything I do is based on fulfilling the perceived expectations of others or of society in general. But here’s the thing: these expectations that you’ll “do something with your life,” that you’ll “be someone,” that you’ll get a high-powered job and a corner office and one day train show-quality Irish Wolfhounds, these are new expectations! Go back to the 17th century and the expectations were this: do everything you can to not die, and that’s about it. Farm potatoes. Basically farm anything you can. But the idea that you could rise through the ranks, that you could become something out of nothing, that idea didn’t exist. Let me stress that: That idea did not exist. It’s not that people considered the possibility and then just resigned themselves to a life of strife, it’s that they never considered the possibility in the first place. Today, if you’re not someone, you’re no one. Back then, if you weren’t someone you were just like everyone else, which sort of made you someone. Maybe you’d lament your lot in life when something particularly bad happened, but you wouldn’t spend all day worrying over becoming something, because that thought would never cross your mind. You’d be too busy drinking ale and farming potatoes, in other words, enjoying life.
So what’s the answer to this situation, to this sick view of what makes a full life? I don’t know if there is an answer. Or rather, there definitely is an answer, somewhere, but I don’t think you’re going to find it by reading this blog post, or by reading Eckhart Tolle (ok maybe you’ll find it by readking Eckhart Tolle since the man’s a hedgehog-looking genius), or by reading Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. But at least by reading this post or those books you might get it in your head that there’s an alternative to the way of thinking that describes modern-day status centered around material accumulation and “being someone.”
You are someone. You are someone in the exact way that I’m someone, or that Bill Gates is someone, or that your hamster is someone. Don’t let me dissuade you from pursuing that dream job. Just please stop for a moment to contemplate why you’re pursuing it. And stop, just for a moment, to contemplate pursuing breeding show-quality Irish Wolfhounds.