Your heart races and you start to breathe heavier. Internal tensions flare as you are confronted with the world’s latest catastrophic event.
How can one possibly maintain a sense of calm or equanimity while watching the news?
One quickly becomes mentally and emotionally exhausted by the constant reminder of our grim and dark Hobbesian world. We ponder, maybe Thomas Hobbes was right when he noted “life is nasty, brutish and short.”
Attention, our precious finite resource, is constantly hacked by the continuous shocking headlines. Curiosity and terror grip your mind scrolling through the latest articles in your news feed.
Your imagination runs astray.
I empathize with all the suffering that is displayed in the news, but how much compassion can a heart hold?
In a fragmented media environment, the reasonable person is bound to ask – who is right, who is wrong, what is…
In the modern world, our job titles tend to be the centerpiece of our identities. When you meet someone new at a social gathering, the first piece of information that they will likely disclose to the question ‘what do you do?’ is the details of your chosen profession.
Your answer to this question will dictate how you will be perceived by others.
If you tell your new acquaintance that you have a senior or executive level position at a high performing business, you will be met with praise and admiration. You are someone who went to elite universities, wears trendy suits, sleeps in posh hotels and works late hours – the epitome of a success story. People will flock towards you with great interest and enthusiasm. You are seen to have high status, and in their eyes, your efforts should be celebrated.
On the other hand, if you tell this new acquaintance that you are a blue-collar worker in a low to medium paying career, getting dirty and working with your hands, chances are that you’ll be met with disinterested emotionless faces. People may be much less enthusiastic to learn about the specifics and nuances of your life.
What I want to explore in this article is to assess why we place so much of our self-worth on a single piece of information – our job titles. Yes, I agree that ‘making it to the top’ of the career ladder is a great achievement. Work can also provide a sense of price and source of meaning.
However, I think that our careers should not subsume one’s whole identity.
What about one’s hobbies, intellectual pursuits or more importantly one’s character. There surely matter – don’t they?
You Are Not Your Job
Objectification is when our humanity and uniqueness is reduced down to a single characteristic or trait. In a hyper-efficient productivity driven society, the complexity of intricacies of our individuality can often be limited to our role in the economic system. This can happen on both sides of the employment relationship. Namely, when someone views an employer or employee as an instrument or tool to achieve their desired economic objectives.
The issue with this type of mindset is that it can lead to stress, burnout and a dissatisfaction in life. We become confined to a singular identity. Friendships or familial relationships are neglected as we become constricted by our work.
We try to distract ourselves from an existential void that cannot be filled by possessions or materialist notions of success.
It is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others. The advent of digital technologies have given us many more ways to judge ourselves against our peers. Browsing our smartphones, we may get envious of the seemingly perfect lives that our friends from high school have crafted. Our self-worth and self-esteem take a hit when we come to the belief that they are higher on the imaginary ladder of success than we are.
The philosopher Alain de Botton coined the term Status Anxiety to describe the fear of being labelled as ‘unsuccessful’ by others or looked down upon. He claims that those who don’t attain our societies conception of success are anxious with the fear that they’ll be judged by others with a lack of dignity or respect. They see themselves as failures who’ve lost in the competitive game of the free market.
But why conform to the expectations of others.
Why not craft your own path?
Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.
Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
There are at least two problems with modern society’s proclivity towards defining success in merely economic terms.
The first is that it negatively impacts one’s physical and mental health. If one finds meaning and purpose only through work, they are then inclined to work unreasonably long hours and make unrealistic sacrifices for their jobs. In a strange reversal of ideals, working late hours and ‘burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion’ has become to be seen as a badge of honour. Busyness is now a status symbol, something that high achievers and self-help gurus boast about on their social media accounts. While this may seem honourable, we all have productivity thresholds. That is, there will come a point when working more hours will lead to less productivity. You will make more mistakes. Remember we are humans, not machines.
The second issue with the mainstream view of status and accomplishment is that it restricts the freedom of the individual. People should have the autonomy to define what success means for them. Rather than merely accepting the social expectations placed on you by others, we can always make the decision about what goals, values and ambitions we would like to achieve.
Perhaps what is most important to us is our religious or spiritual practice, family life, a passion project or our work dedicated to a social cause that we deeply care about. The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.
External things don’t define a person. Most likely, you won’t be remembered by your relative status compared to others or the contents of your CV. In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.
People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.
In February 2021 I penned a poem on hope. I was looking for motivation and inspiration in the midst of the uncertainty that has clouded our times. Alone in a forest near my house, starting at the snowy covered trees, I reminded myself that the beauty of this world is indifferent to human affairs. It is eternal and ever present. It will provide and nourish our spirits when we have been led astray. All that it requires is the cultivation of our attention. That we are present to the complex intricacies that make up our everyday experience.
Wonder and awe fill my being when I contemplate the grandeur and sheer mystery of our universe. I am intertwined in a myriad of interdependent relationships, related to ancestors and species of the past, many of which I will not know or even have heard of. The human species have existed for 250,000 years in a universe that is estimated to be over 4 billion years old.
There is a kind of solace and comfort provided to me from this vantage point. A wider perspective can be uplifting and make us feel grounded. The importance and stress that we place on seemingly trivial things begin to fade away. We are all part of a much bigger web of life which will endure long after we perish.
The spotlight shines away, egotism recedes as I recognize the shared fate which bounds us all together.
As I am writing this article, a cardinal flies past my bedroom window taking refuge in a tree in my backyard. I momentarily pause, and look closely with reverence. I’ve never seen a cardinal in the winter. But then again, it may have been that I was never really paying attention to the world unfolding right in front of my eyes.
Its bright red feathers reflect against the white glow of the snow-covered tree, radiating across the sky.
I don’t really know what the future holds, in many ways it is unpredictable far beyond the confines of human control. I am aware, however that the presence and attention I give to the present moment is the gateway to the beauty of the world – the path towards hope. The omnipresent light is always available to us. What we decide to focus our attention on is a choice that is within our control.
As the bird flies away into the receding horizon, I am reminded of the poetry of Emily Dickinson,
"Hope" is the thing with Feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Source :Poetry Foundation