I'm going to feel like a loser at my high-school reunion

One chum is working on a cure for cancer; one has started his own political party. All this overachieving is giving me status anxiety.


Cary Tennis
December 4, 2008 4:05PM (UTC)

Dear Reader,

Sorry about missing yesterday. I forgot all about jury duty, and then had to rush down there. (I got off with time served.) -- C.T.

Dear Cary,

I just happened to sign up for my 15-year high school reunion Facebook account and I feel like shit. One of my classmates, a really cute guy I had a crush on, is a board member of a major corporation with degrees from Stanford and Harvard. He's only 32, Cary. Another guy has won on Oscar. Many are Ph.D.s and post-doctoral fellows in fancy universities. Someone is working on a cure for cancer, someone else has interviewed the prime minister, a few have started their own political party and their party has won a few seats in Parliament, and someone else won a national bravery award for fighting in a war. I can't stand it.

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I have a good life -- a job that pays well (still), loving parents, a great boyfriend, money, and time to read, think and travel.

And yet, I suffer from this anxiety that I have not accomplished enough in life -- and I have tried to do different things like running marathons, living in different countries, trekking in the Himalayas, meditating in remote Buddhist viharas, even read the book "Status Anxiety." But this status anxiety won't go away.

I think I understand that no amount of external acquisitions will get rid of this anxiety and it is an internal state that needs to be remedied. I try to be grateful for what I have, think about how position, power, wealth are temporary and can go away in no time, but I still feel like a loser. The thing is, I don't know what status I want to achieve -- I just feel like a loser in the middle of these illustrious high school classmates.

Thank God this is only a Facebook thing so far and I can just sign up and remain silent without having to meet these people. I can see a reunion event organized soon and I dread going to that one.

What have you got, Cary?

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Anxious

Dear Anxious,

What have I got? I've got status anxiety just like you, I guess. So how do I deal with it?

Well, for one thing, I don't want to be Donald Trump. I wouldn't mind riding in the helicopter. But have you seen the interiors of those buildings that Donald Trump builds? Seriously. Have you seen the lives these people live?

So do you really want to be these other people? Or do you want their approval? Which is it? And why?

I know how it goes: You think, well, it's my 15th reunion, I really ought to go.

You don't want to go. But you go. And you have a miserable time.

Why? Why ought you to go? What, exactly, would be your reason for going?

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Let's be really literal here. If you go, you are going because you choose to. Conscious choice gives you power. It allows you to define your mission. Say you are going there to take photos of your classmates in embarrassing and unflattering poses. Then you have a mission. Say you are going there to record each person's answer to the question, "Why do you think you're so great?" That gives you a purpose. Or, say you are going there to simply collect business cards. Who knows what you'll do with them, but it sounds like there would be some pretty interesting business cards to be had. You could get the business card of the person who is curing cancer and then later when he wins the Nobel Prize you can say, here, this guy, he's a friend of mine, and pull out his card.

Those would be reasons for going.

But let's go a little deeper here. If you are in politics or business you have to do certain kinds of socializing in order to maintain your economic and political viability. If you're going to network, then fine. Go to network. But if you have no reason -- that's what interests me: What can be our reasons for going to something if we cannot define any concrete social or business purpose?

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Here is what I think is our buried reason: We have a mistaken need to exist in the eyes of other people. We mistake our own sense of existing with the sense of existing that we get when others acknowledge our existence.

So you show up at things to maintain this being, this identity, in the consciousness of the group as you understand it. To not be there is to not exist in their eyes and thus encounter your own absence. Your own absence is frightening. It is a temporary nonexistence.

So we seek to be known, in order to exist in the minds of others, thinking that this adds somehow to the sum of our own existence. But it does not. Not where it counts. If we know that we ourselves exist, yet others do not know we exist, we still exist. But if we ourselves do not exist, and yet others think we exist, it doesn't help. We still don't exist no matter how many others think we exist. It would not even be satisfying to be thought of as a god if we did not actually exist. We wouldn't be able to enjoy it.

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So it is preferable to bolster and intensify our own existence rather than spend time making sure other people we don't care about look at us and thus confirm our existence. So stay home and read "The Tale of Genji."

Anyway, as I write this, believe it or not, I am sitting in the jury assembly room at 850 Bryant Street in San Francisco, and there is a person up at the front of the room giving instructions and playing a videotape about our sacred role as jurors in a democracy, something I take totally seriously. And yet I note with chagrin, many, many years after high school, that I still instinctively want to jeer at the authorities and laugh at their ridiculous little video and their pieties about democracy. My high school role as the misbehaving cutup remains as fresh for me as it was years ago. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything; I guess it's just that the roles we forge in high school are powerful, and perhaps another hidden motive for attending a reunion would be the hope that we could reprise these roles on the same old stage and get back some of our old glory. Fat chance.

I haven't read the book you mention, but being a modern man I looked at the Wikipedia entry for "Status Anxiety" and now I'm intrigued. I will have to read that book, because the general thesis sounds sensible -- that "chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic, ostensibly egalitarian society." I was also quite amused to find, in pleasing bullet-point form, the following cures for status anxiety:

"Solutions:

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  • Philosophy
  • Art
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Bohemianism"

If one were to acquire these various things -- philosophy, religion, bohemianism -- and thus be cured of status anxiety, one would still have the problem of what sort of badge to wear to indicate that one had indeed moved beyond the shallows of status anxiety into the deeper waters of human consciousness.

The problem is that these qualities are not easy to convey in symbols.

Your inner state is not easily conveyed to others via clothing and choice of music, nor easily converted into markers of status and money, or into marketable skills. Nonetheless, it is the more enduring and durable of human qualities. It will get you through things. It might even get you through a high school reunion.


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Plagued by jealousy and contempt? Read p. 368



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Cary Tennis

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