Status Anxiety

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 20 June 2004

Hello, my name is Brenda, and I suffer from Status Anxiety. According to this book by Alain de Botton, which some of you may have read about in a recent Listener, probably most of us do, unless we feel that the whole world loves us unconditionally, and never worry about what anyone thinks of us. Here’s how it works in my life:

I go to this rather prestigious University overseas, and get a degree that’s supposed to open certain kinds of well-financed doors. Then I come back to NZ and train to be a school teacher. Some people in my world are disappointed, and I can't help hearing anecdotes about friends who are practising medicine or law for squillions of dollars overseas as commentary on what I was meant to do. Then it gets worse, I resign from teaching and end up working part time in a church. Now for those who grew up in the church, there might be a certain kind of status associated with pastoral work, but in my background, there is none at all. Quite the reverse. The voices get louder and more pointed – ‘Have you thought about other jobs you could be doing?’ ‘Are you going to be able to earn a lot of money in the church?’…So much potential, so much waste.

When I lie awake at night, wondering if they’re right, and I’m being an idiot, and if I should chuck all this in for some corporate management role that I don’t actually want, but would look and sound better in the eyes of the world…that’s status anxiety. When I find out that a friend that I trained to be a teacher with, and who is now working in another field, earns more in one day than I do in a fortnight, and I feel envious, that’s status anxiety. My friends with ‘real jobs’ invite me out for lunch…for dinner. The food and wine is flowing, the bill is split…’um, can I just pay for what I ordered? My budget’s a bit tight at the moment…’ – that rush of embarrassment – that’s status anxiety. When I hear about what my University peers are doing with their lives on the international stage, and I feel like I’ve failed to measure up – that’s status anxiety. When other people around me start buying houses and I feel left behind, and I worry because I can’t imagine ever being able to afford a house, that’s status anxiety. When I worry about whether what I’m wearing, what I’m eating, what car I drive, what stuff I do and don’t possess, and what brand, and whether or not I exhibit in my material world the signs and markers of success – that’s status anxiety.

Which is why I was so pleased to stumble on this book – which not only helped me articulate what I felt and why I was feeling it, but also to get a perspective on how status anxiety operates in the world at large and how it might be possible to lessen its effects.

Because it occurs to me that this phenomenon, which induces shame, worry, and negative self-perception in good and worthy people is a profoundly damaging by-product of some of the forces at work in today’s world. And that Jesus has much to show us about how we might disentangle ourselves from its clutches.

So first, more broadly – what is status anxiety and its causes? Here’s a summary from the beginning of de Botton’s book:
Status Anxiety is:
 - A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.
 - The anxiety is provoked by, among other elements, recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, conversations with colleagues in the same industry, newspaper profiles of the prominent and the greater success of friends.
 - If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-perception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside…we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves.

De Botton goes on to trace some of the shifts in society that have given rise to the acute sense of status anxiety that he perceives in today’s world.
These causes include rising expectations about lifestyle, in the context of a meritocracy. Our standard of living is dramatically higher today than in earlier generations. What our grandparents thought luxuries, we consider necessities. And where, in the past, one’s social and financial status was largely determined by birth (aristocracy), now we are all led to believe that we all have the potential to be and do and have anything that we want to be and do and have. Moreover, that our social and material status accurately reflects our personal merit – be that talent, or character. The more our expectations rise, the greater our chance of perceiving ourselves as failures, if our success turns out to be less than we had hoped.

We are told by popular self-help gurus that we are in total control of our own lives, that we can determine our ‘mental, emotional, physical and financial destiny.’ If, therefore, we fail, or are poor, or ugly, or bewildered, or suffer, or can’t get our lives together as other people think we should, it’s our fault, it’s because we have been lazy, or stupid or profligate. Our society, which we internalise through the voices of our parents, teachers, politicians, advertisers and peers, is impatient with those who experience mental and emotional hurdles, systemic problems such as discrimination, or sheer bad luck. And if, perchance, you choose to work for less money, or less prestige than you’re theoretically capable of achieving, then you’re a fool.

As de Botton says, ‘the price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be’, and the shame of declaring through our low status, that we are also of low moral worth and low physical or mental capacity.

Alongside these causes is the conditionality of other people’s acceptance of us, the reduction of our identities to what other people think of us, and the idea that there is a direct equation between social status and personal worth. The snobbery we can encounter in the world basically says ‘if you do not fulfil the criteria for what is currently cool, interesting, or admirable, then you as a person are not worth love, attention, or concern.’ The movies, magazines, advertising and social cliques are constantly setting and reformatting the definitions of who may be loved in society. So, while poverty is the material penalty for low status, social and interpersonal neglect is the emotional penalty paid by those who do not bear the badges and symbols of importance.

I’m reasonably convinced that status anxiety is one of the social diseases of our age. It has nothing to do with how actually wealthy and successful we are. Very rich, successful people experience status anxiety in relation to people who are even richer and more successful than them.

And distressingly, the church has sometimes bought into this way of measuring and judging, rather than critiquing it. I thought that the prosperity doctrine was a recent phenomenon. For the sheltered souls among us, the prosperity doctrine includes the idea that if you’re not rich, attractive and successful then you have a problem in your spiritual life, because God’s just sitting there waiting to reward true followers with new cars. But, I found a reference in de Botton’s book to a text from 1836 by the Rev. Thomas P. Hunt called ‘The Book of Wealth: In which it is proved from the Bible that it is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich.’ I ask myself, does the Rev. Thomas P. Hunt’s Bible include the four gospels?

Now, I’m not trying here to cut across what Vince spoke about the other week about the value and legitimacy of exercising our human creativity through business endeavour and wealth creation. Nor do I think that being ambitious, setting goals, and following your dreams is bad. Humanity has made huge advances through the commitment of individuals towards fulfilling their potential. I’m not advocating mediocrity.

What I’m trying to identify is the consequences on us psychologically, of living in a society that ranks people purely on the basis of how much money they have, or the perceived status of their jobs or lifestyles. I think that the church, rather than buying into this ranking activity, with its attendant anxiety, should be loudly and prophetically insisting on an alternative vision for the valuing of human beings. And, we should be providing a safe, welcoming place to belong for those the world has branded as ‘losers.’

I say this on the basis of what I see Jesus saying and doing in the Gospels, as borne out by the early post-pentecost Christian community, and sundry other Christian communities and saints ever since.

One text I particularly love, and return to again and again when I suffer my own bouts of status anxiety is this one from Matthew’s gospel:
‘Therefore do not worry, saying ‘what will we eat?’ or ‘what will we drink?’ or ‘what will we wear?’ For it is the nations of the world who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all those things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ We live in a society that strives after material things, and worries over them, but we are called to participate in an alternative value system. This isn’t an ascetic rejection of material things, or of wealth. The world and the things of the world are there for our enjoyment, and indeed, God ‘knows we need all these things’. But they need to be in their proper place, which is as a potential by-product of participating in the primary endeavour of seeking first God’s kingdom. Jesus redefined ‘the good life’ in terms of restoring human wholeness, and pursuing love for God and others, not in terms of the markers of status. Again and again Jesus’ disciples and the crowds came up against this inverted value system and found it difficult to swallow. They kept wanting to know who was the greatest among them, and what their rewards would be for following him. ‘Take care,’ Jesus says in Luke, ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

So, one of the things we can hold up against status anxiety is this idea that ‘life’ – a life of value, of importance, needs to be measured in different terms than the way life is measured in our current culture. Real life consists of commitment to and participation in, the dynamics of the kingdom of God. According to John’s gospel, Jesus came that we might have life in its fullness, or abundance. Clearly, given the gospel context, fullness, or abundance, are not defined materially, but experienced as freedom from fear and enslavement, a restored relationship with God and others, and the vision of a world transformed by the love of God.

The second thing that I learn from Jesus in relation to status anxiety, is that our human worth and identity in God’s eyes has nothing to do with our worldly status. Jesus continually shocked and surprised his followers and critics by associating with certain kinds of people, and declaring by word and action that they were worthy of his love and attention. He responded to the faith of bleeding women, lepers, the damaged and the diseased and the demon possessed – all people with no status in the context of their culture. And those who might have had wealth but were hated and spurned for other reasons such as Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors – Jesus sought them out and engaged with them as valuable humans who he was willing to accept as his followers.

Jesus was able to do something that it seems few in our world are able to do - which is to see past the external circumstances into the being of a person, and to relate to that part of them. He also called into question the cause and effect relationship that the religious leaders had promoted between one’s physical state and personal fault. He doesn’t blame the poor, the sick and the needy for being poor, sick and needy – and doesn’t make an equation between suffering and sin (such as the man born blind, or those killed by the tower of Siloam.)

I’m not trying to make a case here for devaluing personal responsibility. I think that people make both good decisions and bad choices and that to an extent we reap the consequences of these in our lives. But, we also need to acknowledge that our circumstances are highly dependent on many factors outside our control, and that status is not necessarily an accurate index of moral value. Erin talked a few weeks ago about how important a ‘theology of imperfection’ is to those who struggle in their lives with addiction, or other factors that impair their wellbeing. When the church emphasises success, overcoming, victory over sin, and perfection, it buys into the dynamic that labels the struggler as a loser, and attaches fault and blame to those whose circumstances have led to poor choices or literal physical poverty. I suggest that this dynamic is contrary to the way that Jesus responded to people.

Finally, one of the things that Jesus initiated, and that was carried forward by the church was the idea of having companions who together pursue and encourage an alternative worldview. Even when I am intellectually, or in principle, committed to a certain way of seeing the world, and thinking about money, status, success and so on, it is easy for me to still experience status anxiety on the level of my emotions – my fears, my envy, my reactions. I have made some deliberate choices in my life that are in line with my values and faith, but out of step with most people’s notions of status. Therefore, I need the company of others with a similar outlook to help me affirm my choices and to live in them without anxiety. It’s hard to stand alone against a dominant world ethos. The church can provide a community of encouragement and solidarity as we try to live out the kingdom of God. There’s also a broader community – of all those throughout the world who are finding ways to subvert the cultural assumptions about status, and also all those who throughout history have critiqued the way status has operated in societies. The Bible, together with other literature and art, is part of this wider ‘community’ of input, which can help us to shift both our rational and emotional centres into a different framework for experiencing our world. Church architecture, ritual, art, music and literature can provide, in de Botton’s words, ‘an imaginative holding space for the priorities of the spirit.’

So, three ways in which a Christian faith helps us to offset the profoundly demoralising effects of status anxiety:
 - by defining the ‘good life’ in terms of an alternative set of values
 - by affirming the identity of individuals as distinct from their status
 - and by offering a community of resistance and encouragement as we try to live in ways that differ from the mainstream ethos of our culture.

These things don’t stop me from experiencing status anxiety. But when I’m being hijacked by the fears and reactions that arise out of status anxiety, I do have a place to turn. I can choose to realign myself to the abundant life of the Gospel, rather than the life promised in a television ad, or the pages of a glossy magazine. And I rely on all of you to help me remember that.