Mar 30, 2010

Relieving Status Anxiety

The title of philosopher Alain de Botton’s new book 'Status Anxiety' (Hamish Hamilton: 2004) describes an emotion capable of hobbling the most astonishing life.

He uses the term ‘status’ in its broader sense to mean one’s value and importance in the eyes of the world. When one has status, life can be very good: you are considered important, perhaps even indispensable; you are invited to the right parties, flattered by the right people; everyone laughs at your jokes, regardless of whether they’re funny or not.

The author notes that anxiety arises whenever we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success as endorsed by society. However, de Botton challenges the normal assumption that the prime reason for our hard work is financial. Rather, he believes that our efforts – late nights, extra hours, political smiles – are in fact motivated by something that economists rarely acknowledge: love. He observes,

To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern. Our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are administered to. And under such care, we flourish. [1][1]

There is food for thought here for us as Christians, and particularly Christian leaders – do we appreciate those with whom we work? More to the point, do we show it? Do we allow people a voice? Do we validate their opinions and feelings? Do we value them? In short, do we love them?

In writing on ‘the social self’ the American psychologist William James suggested that if we remained completely unnoticed, ignored and overlooked, if no one ever acknowledged us when we entered a room and everybody treated us as non-existent entities, then “a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief.” [2][2] Why should the attention of others be so important? Why should we need their approval?

de Botton proposes that we suffer from an innate doubt of our own value, that “our sense of identity is held captive by the judgments of those we live among.” In an ideal world we would know our worth; however, as we all know, life ain’t always that simple…

The author states, “There is no definitive solution to status anxiety. The best we can do is hope to understand it, talk about it.”

How dreadful, that one must be locked into such a way of life, ever seeking approval, looking for love, hopefully in the right places, driven onwards to sate the furious desire to be loved…

Jesus offers another way. On one occasion the disciples ask him “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They were jockeying for position, flexing their muscles, preening their feathers. Then Jesus takes a child in his arms and says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3-4 NIV).

A child.

It’s important to understand the first-century Jewish attitude if we are to grasp the full impact of Jesus’ teaching here. Today we tend to idealize childhood as the happy age of innocence and simple faith. However, in New Testament times the child considered of no importance. They couldn’t fight, and they hadn’t been around long enough to gain wisdom from experience or to accrue wealth. Albert Nolan declares, “Children in that society had no status at all-they did not count.” [3][3]

Of course kids are important – valuable, a treasure – Jesus himself got angry when the disciples tried to keep children away from him (Mk 10:14). However, in this sense, For his followers becoming like a little child meant, as Manning puts it, “the willingness to accept oneself as being of little account and to be regarded as unimportant.” [4][4]

This is not to say we act like doormats for the self-absorbed to use and discard  or the bullies of life to trample and mock. As John Stott declares, our chief claim to nobility as human beings is that we were made in the image of God. [5][5] We are of great worth – indeed, God says we are worth the life of his only Son. However, rather than seeing people as resources to be exploited, as mere carcasses to be crawled over as we climb the slopes of acceptance to take the citadel of self-worth, God calls for us to imitate Jesus – to step back and prefer others, to willingly live for the good and best of others. The ability to, “in humility consider others as better than yourself” (Php 2:5); to serve, to put others first. To be happy at the back of the line, with the smallest slice, with a cup of water because the wine has run out. To rejoice when your colleague is esteemed, to mourn when another suffers.

I once heard Jack Haines preach that the key to abundant living was to live for others. This is a superb way to break away from striving for acceptance and status, and reflects the nature and character of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45).

With regards to this overwhelming human desire for love, the Bible tells us of a God who loves this world so much (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:10) and calls for his people to love one another (Jn 13:34-35). And this is, indeed, is good news. As we live for others, we glorify God on our obedience, we fulfil a deep need within ourselves to love, and we express love to those around us.  While relieving ‘status anxiety’ might by no means be a simple task, the gospel offers a way to alleviate this dark emotion, and to set us free from the tyranny of status…

Which is great, because I can’t afford label clothing anyway…

Ps Simon Moetara

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. It is true that those who give the most to others are often the ones who are the most unsung in the church. Let us live for others and show love whoever we are.