Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th Century French writer, diagnosed the unhealthy fixation on rank “…as a strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance.”
The concern with social position is “a soul-crushing disease that afflicts much of Western civilization,” wrote British author Alain de Botton. In his book, Status Anxiety, he explained the particular disorder that focuses on an obsession with rank. It is prevalent in some peoples’ lives for extended periods of time.
The affliction is treatable over time and with great effort.
The first step is acceptance. The individual should accept and “forgive himself”
For having the elite club membership, the weekend house in the country.
In the local scene, being in the elite circle is achieved through family pedigree, inherited wealth business savvy, good fortune, political success. Being at the top tier has an unwritten code of behavior. It is a no-no to act like an ostentatious parvenu.
Conspicuous consumption and excessive social exposure is considered poor taste especially when the country is in a recession or when times are uncertain.
For example, the nouveau riche like to name-drop, social climb, and brag about material possessions, to make constant allusions to the Ivy League degree, and having the children in the same ultra exclusive university.
It is considered déclassé to flash over-sized marble-like solitaires, glittering jewelry and designer clothes with visible labels or tags, flamboyant attire and behavior.
One should not be loud in behavior and manner of speaking. One should not brag about the number of sports cars, the size and price of chandeliers, or the number of rooms in the family’s new (one generation old) “ancestral mansion.”
In today’s modern, cyber savvy society, almost anything goes!
The old rich whisper and never shout. They are very low-key, proper — with impeccable behavior, gracious manners, speech and attire.
People get stuck in a “congenital uncertainty” with regard to their value. The display of unrefined, crude behavior — overweening ambition, shallow snobbery, name dropping, and calculating the net worth of others based only on appearances — is the result of insecurity. The underlying factor is the desperate bid for recognition and esteem.
The perks and comforts of rank are enjoyable.
Mr. De Botton qualified the false notion about position in terms of actual value.
“Occupying an enviable social rung is by no means a barometer of true worth.”
In Western history, the poor enjoyed a moral status as elevated by their low social rank. (This was based on a selective survey, the pervasive influence of Christianity and Marxism.) The affluent pursued their pleasures under the stigmas of corruption and sin.
The rise of capitalist meritocracy in the 20th century changed the delicate arrangement. Money became the social signifier of character. Being rich was not only better. It created the impression that rich people are more highly regarded. In materialistic societies, this is true.
Being poor was unfortunate. It was considered regrettable, and a “deserved” state.
The material world overtook and overwhelmed the spiritual world. The result is a pervading anxiety about rank and status. It has become an obsession for some people. One-upmanship and keeping up with the richer neighbors and friends are the symptoms of the malaise.
There are several remedies.
(It may seem esoteric for the status-obsessed and the terminally stricken OTTs — over the top — in the social scene.)
Read books that are perceptive and mind-expanding to appreciate values and ideas.
History and anthropology are insightful. Ancient ruins provide clues to civilizations and how people loved. Gazing at temples, rocks and pre-historic fossils are curative and therapeutic.
Study art history and paintings. It would challenge society’s understanding of what matters.
The individual would broaden his perspective and learn from the past.
Laugh at the humorous, witty, and satirical cartoons in a magazine such as the New Yorker. They poke fun at the high status and foibles of others.
The positive role models one can emulate are the following:
• The ancient Greek cynics who did not give a damn about other people’s opinions.
• The 19th century European bohemians (artist, writers, philosophers) who knew that money was not everything. They enjoyed life and living despite the tight budgets and harsh conditions.
• Jesus Christ. He taught us the fundamental value that we are all created equal.
Religion or spirituality is the most effective antidote for rank anxiety. A proper sense of humility would heal the affliction of vanity and superficiality. (Unfortunately, being religious does not guarantee instant healing of the corrosive effects of being spoiled, egotistical and self-important. The Pharisee-like behavior of self-righteous hypocrites is probably incurable.)
In the local setting, some people are beyond comprehension.
They are tolerated because of their stature and status — wealth, fame, or power. There are fleeting and temporal. The minor vices such as compulsive climbing or ostentatious behavior can be tempered with a dose of introspection, quiet, self-imposed hibernation, and reflection. And a lot of discipline.
The Christian emphasis on morality is an equalizer.
No matter how powerful or important others may be or believe themselves to be.
One thing is certain.
“We can take comfort in the thought that a lot of us will ultimately end up as the most democratic of substances: dust.”
Maria Victoria Rufino is an artist, writer and businesswoman. She is president and executive producer of Maverick Productions.