Status anxiety and a spiritual life

There are a lot of things I am not, which sometimes bothers me. I’m not, economically speaking a very successful author – not a best seller for my publisher, not a big name in my field. I’m one of those people who goes in to make up the bulk of a movement, the crest of a wave someone else will ride on to far more glorious effect. History is full of us. We provide momentum for movements, we underpin change but individually, we are entirely forgettable.

Like a lot of people, I fret about how other people see me. I fret about issues of success, and status. For me this often includes a fair amount of angst over not being intellectual enough. It’s not been an easy process for me, coming to terms with the facts here. It’s been evident for a lot of years that at no point would I go back to formal study. I can’t afford it and I do not think I could take the pressure. The more I watch those who can, and the more I read, the more evident it is to me that I just don’t have the right kind of mind for this sort of thing. I don’t have the discipline, or much inclination to cultivate it.

The desire to be able to do this, or be seen as a certain sort of person has everything to do, in my case, with a desire to be taken seriously, and that’s really all there is to it. I associate academic status with credibility, and being taken seriously, which in turn would seem to validate the process of writing, and the time spent on it. Fame and money have similar, validating potential. There’s an illusion in here about achieving the kind of status that would stop the people who habitually put me down from doing that, but I’ve started to notice that anything I achieve seems to cause a devaluing of the thing in certain quarters, not an improved valuing of me. There are games I do not get to win.

It’s a very easy game to play with yourself, too. Set up a distant goal, a really tricky hoop to jump through, a magic point of achievement that will validate you. When I get there, then I will be ok. Then they will accept me and take me seriously and be nicer to me. Then I won’t have to feel all the put downs and humiliations I’ve been lugging around for all this time. Get the right job, achieve the right income level, raise the perfect child, become massively famous, save the world… And somehow all you ever get to do is run, not arrive.

Most of us will not be wildly successful, heroic, wealthy, famous or important in any of the ways we might want to be. It does not help that we have a culture where celebrity is some kind of holy grail, and ‘ordinary’ is tantamount to an insult. We prioritise the feats of the few whose names we can remember, and the vast majority of people, slogging away as best they can, are slightly invisible.

Spiritual paths will often tell us that we shouldn’t care about these things – fame, wealth, status etc are trappings of the world, traps, dead ends. Pulled by this in one direction and by massive cultural pressure to strive and feel like a failure in the other, the results can be untidy to say the least. If I’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that ‘you shouldn’t feel this way’ is the least helpful advice. I also wonder, because I’m cynical, what exactly to make of people who are making a lot of money and achieving fame as spiritual leaders and gurus who cheerfully dole out the message that the rest of us should focus on our spiritual lives and not worry about all the things they have accumulated. That can just create a new set of status goals, as you strive to be the best Druid, do the most meditation, have the best wand, or whatever becomes the substitute.

I should not worry about wealth, fame, power or worldly status because the famous guru I just paid a lot of money to said so?

We all seek validation, one way or another. We all measure ourselves. I wonder if the answer might be to support each other in finding some better and more available yardsticks, praising each other for what we can do, for what goes well, for modest success, and taking down the impossible goal posts for each other, so as to come up with a more sane culture.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Status anxiety and a spiritual life

  • angharadlois

    This is all so true! Speaking as someone who is going through a long, slow process of realising that I’ll probably never achieve [insert amazing/improbable achievement here], not to mention untangling years of conditioning that this would be the only thing that would validate my life’s work. In those rare moments when I realise it’s ok that I’ll probably never be amazingly famous/successful/influential, I feel so much happier – able to devote more time and energy to doing what I really care about and following my own path instead of comparing myself unfavourably to my ridiculously high standards. A lovely quotation I read this morning said “my aim is to be a really good no-one” and that’s something I’m planning to adopt 🙂

    n.b. It probably goes without saying that your ideas *are* massively influential on me!

  • Éilis Niamh

    Gosh I haven’t thought about it that way, but it’s so true, Nimue. I’m in grad school getting my PH.D. Why? Well frankly, because when I have a piece of paper backing up my claims a year from now, or earlier, I won’t be an invisible blind person saying such and such and so, to be ignored and ridiculed. I’ll be one of the select blind people with a PH.D., which equals respect (for the wrong reasons, but …hey it’s respect right?) Well, maybe. I think it’s absurd we have to jump through sometimes near impossible hoops like you say just for a modicum of authority and to be taken seriously. I’ve spent most of the years of my life trying to belong and be taken seriously, this most recent grad school venture has already taken nine of them. I’m none the wiser. But, I have had plenty of experiences to spur me on, such as when an able-bodied person expresses doubt that I could join something they are doing and asks me how I get dressed in the morning, let alone be part of society… then I mention I am a Ph.D. candidate… and they’re attitude does a 180 makeover in less than thirty seconds. It’s disgusting. And the reality of our twisted world. And yeah, even though spiritually I try not to live the illusions masquerading as truth in that world, I still the heck care, because I don’t like being treated less than human.

    As a person with a disability I also have a weird relationship with heroism. I’m often made out as an “inspiration” just because I get out of my house and live my life. (Then I have to explain to people who haven’t read mythology that walking down the street or getting an education isn’t actually heroic… it’s life… and anyway what is heroic usually gets deemed such after the fact and certainly not by the person engaged in whatever it is, which you can usually bet they’re doing because they think it’s necessary.) But I do sometimes, okay oftenn, feel like I need to be superwoman just to appear average to everyone else. I do have real genuine limitations without sight, and as long as I can live my life so that those limitations are invisible, or when that isn’t possible, of completely negligible impact, never seeming to slow me down, this culture will accept me, for instance, I might get hired for a job instead of being unemployed.

    Now I’m going to say, that’s exhausting and overrated. If possible, don’t do it. don’t bother with academia either, it’s a mess and it’s not any flaw in you steering you away, probably it’s genuinely not your path and also you’re wiser than I, having noticed all the myriad flaws in the system itself you want nothing to do with. Academia doesn’t bestow intelligence and wisdom, just knowledge and of a specific kind. That knowledge is not always of value, and it certainly does not define anyone’s personal value or worth. And third, what is remembered lives, Nimue, and you have loved ones and family and friends, you don’t need a crowd to be valued. Also, think of it this way: the fewer the people in your remembering crowd and the more genuinely they loved you, the more accurately you’ll be remembered. Often what a person gains in popularity they sacrifice in accuracy and authenticity. It’s not fun if everyone knows your name but are all completely wrong about who you actually were, or are. Being really, wholeheartedly loved by a few is soooo much better. That’s what I’m aiming for, having fortunately witnessed the pitfalls of the alternative before attempting it first hand. Can’t say as much for my pursuit of academia. 🙂

    • Nimue Brown

      Many thanks for sharing these insights. The assumptions people have are weird, to say the least, and often so toxic… but then I’ve been thrashed at Scrabble by a blind guy, who also had a far better spatial memory than me… there is no knowing what any given person may be able to do, or what they may struggle with, and this habit of thinking we know, when considering someone else… i have no idea what that’s about but am increasingly sure its of no use whatsoever. I hope what you’re doing gets you to where you need to be and at least gives you some leverage.

  • Along the Write Lines

    Hi Nimue, thanks so much for writing and posting this piece. It chimes with recent conversations I’ve been having with friends, and with myself! In my experience, the outer and the inner are two different yardsticks and two distinct though intersecting realities. All I can add is what one of my friends reminded me – the motto of the Grail knights: Work on yourself and serve the world.

  • curlydogs11

    Hi Nimue, yes, I’m back. New computer, same old me! I’ve said before that you and I have experienced some of the same things in life, but in this particular area we are different. I have never sought to validate myself. I may not be a writer, nor Doctor, nor on the really high scale of intelligence but I am unique, I am me! As you are too! You are a writer – your words always inspire me, or cause me to stop and think and even sometimes cause me grief – but because of your words I am growing even more. To those who love you, you are a special, unique person…you are Nimue Brown, who has a depth of innate knowledge that few possess. And, above all, you are hones about who you are. I for one treasure that in you.

    • Nimue Brown

      Thank you! Glad the comp is sorted. I think it’s part of the nature of some jobs, because doing them exposes a person to all kinds of feedback, which can mess with the head. in a lot of jobs, both the failures and the wins are less obvious, which is good around the fails and perhaps less fun around the wins, but if what you do is under constant scrutiny from potentially lots of strangers, everything gets weirdly heightened.

  • Gwion

    I try to apply the same principle to my ambitions that I do to my purchasing, namely asking myself questions such as; do I need it, what will I do with it, will it change my life and if so how? These usually keep any wilder flights of fantasy at bay but you do have to answer them honestly. (I have to ask these questions every time I go past an Oakwood musical instruments stall at a festival: frankly, it’s lack of practice and talent that are the key issues for me here not the need for a better instrument!)

    On the “ambitions” side, even if something would change my life there’s always that last question. Changes have downsides as well as upsides. I had a short period, professionally, of being a fairly big fish (or at least a fairly high profile one) in a (very) small pool. I hated the high visibility and was much happier when I stepped out of the limelight. If I’m ever tempted to think of getting that extra recognition, that validation, in some area, I think back to that experience. Of course, I’m still plagued with wanting to be accepted but being honest about why and what I’d be prepared to sacrifice to get that acceptance is a good discipline.

    No-one gets it all: to paraphrase; “the right job, the right income level, the perfect child, fame, saving the world”. You only need to look at those who have achieved some of the above to see that they have lost some of the others in the process.

    Don’t just ask yourself what you want, ask what (or who) you’d be prepared to sacrifice to get it.

    (From a happily unsuccessful bloke noticeably lacking in ambition. )

    • curlydogs11

      I really like what you’ve written here. To me, it’s setting priorities – what’s more important – a life worth living, or to be a big fish…the answer for myself is easy, to live a life worth living, to make the most of what time I have in this life. Some will call me lazy, certainly unsuccessful in what a lot of folk deem to be important…but me, I’m happy and I can see that you are too! Yay for living life our way!

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