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.

1 comment:

Marni said...

I think the original article missed a point. It is important to differentiate self-esteem and (just) esteem (or peer-esteem), and the article seems to confuse what peer-esteem is as compared to self-esteem. These two are two different concepts and they work differently.

Peer-esteem is "what I think/feel about my peers thinking about me". As you and the article suggest, it is all about relative comparison to what others around me have, what they are able to achieve, and all that.

But, self-esteem has nothing to do with that. Self-esteem is relative to something within a person, and independent from the peers. Self-esteem is the inner calm, the inner confidence about my own skills and abilities. Note though, it is done WITHOUT the comparison to others.
If I am alone on a mountain range doing a solo-expedition my "self-esteem" is rooted in my own abilities to handle the elements, to make sure the risks I'm taking are to the level of my abilities, and the decisions I'm making ensure my survival and happiness. My self-esteem comes from within me. It is irrelevant to what any of my peers think about me, my skills, my equipment or my abilities. My peers are simply not there. When I am coding a new solution to a problem, I'm alone, and my self-esteem comes from my abilities to be able to express the problem in the code, in a concise and precise way, cleanly, etc. My peers are not there, and often, they do not read what I wrote. Again and again, it is NOT about comparing yourself to others, but being able to show to yourself how skillful you are. Self-esteem is there, within you. It does not come for free. It requires practice, training, learning, etc. It is hard work. It is a side-effect of who you are.

When I run a marathon, the feeling of being able to judge my skills such that I have a consistent run, and I am able to run it to the best of my abilities is self-esteem. The comparison to how I run compared to other runners is esteem (or peer-esteem). These are two different things. There will be always runners better than me, and runners worse than me. As with everything else. My self-esteem is not dependent on where I am in the classification. My self-esteem comes from me being able to be fully myself.