Sunday, August 13, 2006
Status Anxiety - revisited
Veritas et momento mori...
The other night, "seized with mortal anguish", (Oh - that was Queen Esther!) I did a post I felt was far too self-indulgent; immediately the next morning I deleted it. That day someone remarked that it was one of the better posts she had read by me, insisting it wasn't self-indulgent at all, that others would be able to identify with it - I'm not sure about that. Perhaps I can retrieve something of its essence on this rainy Sunday afternoon...
The other evening I caught a piece on PBS by the man who wrote "Status Anxiety" - Alain de Botton and it resonated with me. I had been somewhat concerned with the week's news of new terrorist threats, the usual war stories, the economy and fuel prices, oh, and news about my health, which hasn't been the greatest. Thus I was a little anxious, enough to get a prescription for, in addition to new anti-hypertensive drugs and things. Naturally I had been disappointed the Dr. did not prescribe any valium for me either. So it was in that context that I watched this PBS program on status anxiety - perhaps the plaque of American culture.
It was illustrated, as I assume the book is as well, with "momento mori" paintings. A popular genre of art from the 17th and 18th centuries. (A contemporary example is shown above.) Nobility and the wealthy decorated their homes with such images included in their collections to remind themselves of their own mortality, in keeping with the Biblical exhortation to keep death always before one's eyes, as it were. This has long been a Christian tradition as evidenced in the paintings of the saints who are often shown contemplating a skull in some fashion, signifying the contemplation of death and the need to prepare oneself for it. Easily done today, as I pointed out, regarding the threats all around us and a physician's diagnosis. (No, I am not dying yet - dang it!)
Status anxiety however is a very real thing. Look at the new MacMansions springing up along the hillsides - squeezing up I should say. Check out the Lexus' and Hummers and SUV's on the road. The Louis Vitton bags and oodles of designer clothes people have. "What school did you graduate from?" "Who cuts your hair?" "Where do you live?" "He makes how much?" "Oh, so you are vice-president now!" "And you own how many homes?" "What does my son do? Oh excuse me, I have to talk to..."
We are really into it. De Botton showed service people in fast food places, contrasted with the well to do. One can see all sorts of contrasts in status when one looks. It's even evident at Church. The priest rarely runs up to talk to the trucker's family in the back. He is most likely to be found talking with the major contributors. The VP I once worked for would refuse to deal with anyone in a company other than the "principal person" - either another VP or the owner of the company. That's pretty de rigueur however for persons in position of power.
Is status real or imagined? Well, it's obviously real - it works. Although in many respects its imaginary since it is elusive and transitory - especially considering we all use the toilet and will eventually die. My old VP is dead now, nearly forgotten, except he has an industry award named for him, so he'll live on for awhile. Which brings up another topic in this regard, awards.
Awards and rewards and commendations. I've gotten a few. It doesn't help though. They're fleeting. They are encouraging at the time, yet other's opinions and assessments of me, my work, isn't a source of bliss for me. Neither are possessions, much less status. There is no real status in being a manager all of one's life. I learned that when my older brother died, followed a year later by my father's death.
Their deaths were a critical turning point for me in my life. I encountered an extreme emptiness, even though I was not that close to either of them. I came to realize that my principle motivation in life had been to prove myself to them, to seek their approval and appreciation. That was something they never expressed. Nevertheless I recognized I did everything to gain it - even though I was somewhat estranged from them. Then suddenly, they were gone, I realized I had no one to prove myself to any longer. I stopped painting, pretty much retreated from friends and family and started watching "Friends" a lot. (I would have been Chandler - although my dad wasn't a drag queen.)
I eventually snapped out of it of course, thanks to lots of time spent before the Blessed Sacrament and writing stories that could probably have become episodes for "The Simpsons" - cathartic memoirs of a crummy childhood. It pretty much matured me. I got back into the swing of things eventually. I was convinced I no longer cared about what people thought of me or my accomplishments - I was doing my art and my job to please myself - I was working for me, not others.
In the workplace however, you soon realize you really do work for others. (Especially when health problems come up.) One may imagine that one "lives to work" but in the end one "works to live". You have to please the employer, you have to play by their rules. They are there to reinforce the "status anxiety" syndrome, after all, it's their "kingdom". It's just the way it is. It's always going to be like that. They need you until you are no longer useful. That's life. What kind of status is that, Mr. Vice-President? You too can be replaced. (One of my friends was recently promoted to vice-president - congratulations JB!)
"Vanitas et momento mori." (Maybe I should become an alcoholic...it's a joke!)
[Added note: Coincidently, "The Simpsons" dealt with the subject of status tonight.]