Friday, June 4, 2010

Status and Navel-gazing

I never really knew what "self esteem" was supposed to mean. It always seemed to translate into "I think I'm better than others", and I regularly failed to see why that would be a good idea to be teaching that to kids. I guess this excellent discussion of status makes it clear that "better than others" is precisely what self esteem is.

I've often felt that modern society is somehow unhappier than a perceived simpler past, and this article helps explain why I feel so: If status is self-esteem, and status is relative, then how we feel about ourselves is relative to what we have. And modern humans have a lot.

We feel rewarded when we gain some relative improvement in our lives. In a simpler world, there is a more direct line to incremental status improvements. Being the best in your village means besting only dozens of challengers for esteem.

In a world where the simple achievements are common-place, we seek improving status in ever more circuitous, arduous routes. Even grand accomplishments seem hollow when you're comparing yourself to the global population. Even scaling the worlds highest mountain is blase -- a friend's brother is doing it right now!

This is what makes buddhist philosophy more relevant today than ever, because it teaches us to find "status" in the things that are already around us, and quit searching out "hollow" status in harmful pursuits. Given our current pace of exploitation, what was once the "high-status" of possessing a clean source of water may yet come back in fashion due to scarcity.

"Status" is a thing of our creation, and we can choose to find it where we will; if we can tame a relentless nature.