Status Anxiety

We have a great discussion on ‘status anxiety’ among Christians that is occuring under the Star Wars post. Here is Gall’s salient post (and reflections on a book by Alain de Botton) that will carry the discussion further…

“I think what catches me about the topic is that so much of life feels like trying to straighten a paper clip; just as it bends nearly to straight, it pivots between my fingers and I’m suddenly bending it the wrong way. I think about that with wealth and poverty – how poor is poor enough, and at what point does the focus on simplicity become an errant idol of its own? Faith and works. Experience vs. the voice of the Church. Left brain vs. right brain. Knowledge vs. open-mindedness. The fine line between following Jesus and getting ahead of him.

I want to trust in grace, but I also want to respond to it. I want to experience the sublime, but I don’t want to fall in love with the voice instead of the speaker.

I think all of it comes down to an issue of adequacy, and even a well-crafted disregard for adequacy or inadequacy readily becomes its own claim to adequacy – or status. There was a time when I shaved my head to remind me that my only claim to adequacy was Jesus – no matter what looks I got from others. It worked for a while, but at a certain point that reminder became my badge of status; it proved that I wanted to know God enough to shave my head to learn something…cool of me.

The subtle and not so subtle pressures regarding status are pervasive and fluid – and it seems that even an effort to step out of the flow results in the loss of ground…and the lost ground is not so much a matter of social standing as it is a matter of self description. To the extent that those external pressures remain mysterious and stealthy, the ability to face them, choose them or reject them remains shackled.

Specialized knowledge is a comfort for a time: as you recall, Fr Neo, I bought the Nicene encyclopedia from you – and have read the bulk of it, and washed it down with desert fathers and Philokalia. It was – and in some ways continues to be – helpful, but it is not adequate to the task of living on its own…and neither are the giant thoughts and truths in that library. It’s fascinating, and it certainly is aimed at real and ultimate things – transformational things – but even such high order specialized knowledge is often primarily valuable only in corresponding specialized arenas.

When the moment comes where I recognize that I’ve built yet another island of specialized knowledge, I have to decide what to do in response. Do I claim that the island is the whole world? Do I claim that the island is the only spit of land that matters? Do I abandon the island and swim for some other island or the mainland?

What dazzles me is that I don’t think there’s much alternative to developing specialized knowledge – and even the effort against its development becomes a specialization in its own right.

I wonder if there may be some way to enjoy the islands, but to hop among them. I don’t mean to create some universalist or pantheistic structure with this – I just mean to live in a less self-conscious manner.

I live in a creative cycle of people – writers and artists and film makers and such. One night I went to dinner at this very fussy place with a very fussy, very elite-minded film maker and his wife. It was interesting, but the night was ruled by self-consciousness and specialized vocabulary (and the ability to use the vocabulary was less about actually communicating anything than it was about demonstrating the ability to use the vocabulary). I felt like one of the “cool kids,” but it was an exhausting, nerve-wracking, doubt-inspiring night.

I spent the next evening with a couple in their vinyl-clad starter home. The husband was excited about the cheap stereo system he’d installed, and wanted to show me everything about his new Tevo setup. We ordered pizza. We watched American Idol. AND THEY CALLED IN TO VOTE!

There was no showing off with the second couple, and I found them to be vastly more enjoyable – and better for my soul – than the first couple. And as I compared the lives of the two couples, I quickly saw that the second marriage was better, the couple was more invested in their world and was clearly more “salt” in it, and their interests were more diverse and their internal pressures were clearly lower.

They were just happy little consumers – but the key to their quality of life was that they seemed to be almost completely unaware of the pressures of status and adequacy.

In their case, I think they’ve never been aware of the pressures. What I want to know is how, as someone who has been very much aware of them and the games that go along with them, how do I break free?

What made me post the information about the book this morning is that as I’ve been reading the posts over the past couple of months (I think I’ve read everything posted this year), I’ve seen a specialized knowledge, and I’ve felt a certain pressure to use the vocabulary of the specialized world.

That’s not an all bad thing – especially given the fact that the discussions here, and the faith stripe represented in the people, have everything to do with moving in a direction the runs at crossed paths with what feels like a giant herd of American lemmings. Specialized knowledge and a specialized determination are critical to keep people from being swept in a direction they don’t want to go. But the catch is that it is still a specialized knowledge, with a specialized vocabulary and specialized pressures, and at some point my assumption is that it will all feel suddenly like an island.

I don’t think the trick is to stop growing the specialized knowledge; I think the trick is to know the island moment is going to come and to know what to make of the island dynamic not just when it arrives, but as the island is explored.

More from the back cover of the book: “a master explicator of our civilization and its discontents turns his attention to the insatiable quest for status, a quest that has less to do with material comfort than with love.”

That seems like a topic worth considering. I know where the answers will be found (and I assume de Botton won’t come to the same ones I will), but what grabs me about the book is that even though I know where the answers are going to be, I keep finding it darned difficult to manage the pressures I use on this bent paper clip of life, and I’d like to hear what someone else who’s thinking about it has been thinking.”

19 thoughts on “Status Anxiety

  1. What is Episode III about?

    I went to see Episode III tonight in Tampa on a business trip. It was satisfying in completing and tying up many plot elements and details of the previous movies. Fortunately, JarJar didn’t have any speaking lines. The movie showed, above all else, the fall and spiritual tragedy of Anakin Skywalker (nee Darth Vader). Anakin’s fall is germaine to the discussion on this site ( of Status Anxiety, I believe.

    The main struggle of all our lives seems to be to die to self. But it can’t be done in the abstract; it is done by surrendering self to God. Anakin couldn’t manage it. When given the opportunity to say the Jedi’s equivalent to “Thy will be done”, he demurred. He wanted Anakin’s will to be done, instead. So, he turned to the dark side of The Force. And, in doing so, Anakin yielded to and then became evil. In fact, his surrender to evil was prompted through the tempting of the Sith Lord. But, he had to cooperate and surrender to it. His ego and pride and arrogance and blindness to anything that would not allow him to have his way were thus unchecked, and surged into full bloom. The transition complete, Anakin was reborn. He became Darth Vader, with scary black suit and mask to boot.

    Now, what does this have to do with Gall and the book he wants everyone to read? The angst that he expressed about his struggles to correctly think and be are about the alternatives open to someone who is not open to surrender. It is called posing, by some. Posing is trying to be someone, anyone, rather than becoming what God created you to be. God’s way, and the way of the “Good” side of The Force, is the way of surrender to a will not your own. The self is not suppressed in this process; it is transcended. Paul’s way of expressing this is “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me”. Wasn’t this Anakin’s struggle?

    Yoda had noticed in Anakin as a youngling the anger associated with his mother’s death. Anger is about suppressed or subverted power. Anakin was angry because his mother had been taken from him. His powerlessness as a child about this issue was his weakness. He even knew he was conflicted and told Naboo about it. He also defended the Jedi to the Chancellor by saying that the Jedi were selfless, they were about serving others. When the Chancellor tempted him, this drew out his anger and his pride. Now, instead of a struggle with the dark feelings of anger and resentment about his mother, he was able to “express” his anger. This gave him strength and power, claimed the Chancellor. This would make him more powerful than any Jedi, which was a lie. Anakin’s struggle had been to keep it in. Anger and resentment needed to be transcended, but not by fighting against it, but by surrendering it to…Christ. I don’t know how the Jedi did this without a personal God who offered to take their sin from them and relieve their burdens. But, the reason for surrender is that it allows self-abnegation. Our will is what keeps us from the fullness of life in Christ. Christ, like the Force, is actually that which created, maintains and sustains us all.

    Now, please Gall, don’t get wrapped up in the terms or anything. This is about something real, not just specialized words we’re trying to show facility with. It may seem abstract, but it is not complex. Surrender to Christ (God) is a posture of submission, immediately felt. Symbolically it is kneeling before His altar. But in the self, it is experienced as dropping the struggle of “trying” to be anything, yielding our self to Him and asking him to help us do His will. Like the Jedi, with practice, we can then become selfless, working and living for the benefit of others, because that is His will for us. He created us to do good works. The specifics of how we do that are peculiar to who each of us were made to be, but that is how we get off the struggle merry-go-round. We acknowledge Him and then surrender to His will.

    The outline topics that your author gave to avoid the struggle I suspect, as you do also, are just other ways of posing. They can’t work. I’ll read this sometime, but my guess is that what he offers will not avoid the struggle. In time his “ways” will seem superficial.

    The real thing must be a way of being, not a way of acting. Those who through God’s grace “be” His will have enormous charisma and humility, which most people think are polar opposite characteristics. They look a lot like Jedi: peaceful and alert, ready to serve with courage and full commitment; able to give their lives, because death is not to be feared if it is God’s will for them.

    So, anyway, that’s the way it looks from Tampa.

  2. Morpheus, I posted a comment earlier that your post really spoke to me. I didn’t elaborate because I really wanted to take time to think about it first. Both your post and Gall’s (?) post truly blessed me. It was as if Gall diagnosed the desease and you wrote the prescription. I had never made a connection between wrestling with anxiety and a failure to die to self. But after reading both of your post, it all finally made sense. Everything clicked. It seemed so obvious, yet how had I missed it? Surrender is a regular theme in my prayer life… I as well looked at the list of prescribed “antidotes” to status anxiety with a bit of scepticism. I always kind of balk at the term “religion.” To my mind it can be a very different thing from “relationship”. But I thank you for your post. It truly blessed and helped me.But if I hadn’t read Gall’s post as well I would have never made the vital connection.

  3. Morpheus –

    Thank you for your post.

    I’m out of town writing on rented coffee shop Net time and don’t have enough remaining to post well.

    It’s a difficult thing to discuss issues of pride and “getting it” when any disagreement or difference seems to highlight exactly the issue the other person is intending to point out – so I feel as though I’m painted into a bit of a corner (if I don’t agree I don’t “get it” or am too proud – which may well turn out to be the case, but it’s a difficult corner from which to begin).

    We’ve been driving around Seattle/Vancouver the past few days, and because I don’t know the radion stations and didn’t bring any music with me, I keep scanning past the Christian stations…

    …what gets to me about the music is that there is a sense where the posture seems more like a field that’s been mowed down, plowed, and now lies rich and brown and … and nothing’s growing there. Evangelical language loves this place – it’s a nutured sort of “surrender” that has far more to do with self-abasement than something more like a warrior growing stronger and also serving his master (which is much more how I’ve read the Fathers – while they wouldn’t use the military phrases, there is a seriousness to their quest that has much to do with a forceful surrender than a humblenss achieved by hating what God has made in them).

    The common evangelical “surrender” would never include Luke bearing a light saber, learning the Force, or doing any of the things that run so contrary to his whiny nature.

    It is entirely possible that my own frustrations have a great deal to do with posing – there is something very wrong, at a deep gut level, with the sort of humility I was taught to pursue in the evangelical world. That sort of self-abasement seemed to necessitate aspects of personal oxymoron – aspects evidenced by pride in suffering, heads more full than hearts, caveats in language where God is showing someone something “…again” (an important word to include so others won’t measure your walk as further behind where they may have guessed it to be).

    What was never a part of what I encountered was the basic question: What have you been wired to be? There were the passive answers, of course – the stuff like a reflector of God. Or the too broad to be lived like “whatever God wants for me.”

    What was missing was some way to live in the affirmative in a tangible enough manner to know something about the place where I would encounter God.

    There is an active dying to self required, but there is also an active living to God that seems to be critical to doing this life. Christ followed and suffered and served, but He also actively lived forward into His call. A long line of others follows Him, of course.

    It’s possible that the issue of “posing” is greater in me than in many people. It’s also possible that it’s endemic to the evangelical world.

    The piece that I’m after, though, has something to do with the difference between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between going under the baptism water and breaking its surface on the way back up.

    It’s the difference between simply dying to self and allowing self to be raised. Its an area where the evangelical musicians mislead I think – they would plow the field and then pluck the new, healthy growth as well – so in love are they with the “yielded” field…where nothing is growing. That’s a different sort of pride, but that’s the one I’m hoping to grow out of.

    Does the parsing of the difference make sense, or to I sound horribly off? Or do I need to return to this when I have more Internet time and can be more lucid?

    In any case, thank you for taking the time to offer the reply.


  4. Gall,

    I think you are still making this about you and what you do. The step you want to “take” is actually taken by Him. And, incidently, He is taking it. This conversation is His process of claiming you for Himself. No big flashy burning bush. This is just a flow of gentle conversation between you and Christ. We kinda seem like observers around you. We engage because God presented you to us to engage with. You respond because you are drawn to the people here and the subject they are discussing. Do you wonder why? There must be a place in you built for this conversation, or you could not understand it or participate in it. You were chosen by Him before the world began, says the scripture. Your journey to get to this point wasn’t an accident. You got here by responding to the crumbs he left on the paths you have taken. You are very near home now. The crumbs on Fr. Neo’s site are big juicy ones. Enjoy.

  5. Gall – I think that you are very right when you state that posing is endemic to the evangelical world. I have felt this for a long time, but didn’t quite know how to say it.

  6. Gall stated: “I don’t think there’s much alternative to developing specialized knowledge”

    This is untrue. The amish, for one, are experts in generalized knowledge. There are many others, but they tend to live in the hidden corners of society.

    What may be true is that there is no alternative to developing specialized knowledge IF you wish to live like everyone else, ie, in the mainstream of western culture AND western religion.

    But this then might get on to the main point of the above discussion: How comfortable do we feel/how able are we to follow in the steps of Jesus, wherever that might lead?

  7. Gall, et al,

    I have been reflecting on the status anxiety thing. The whole concept of ‘specialized knowledge’ and vocabulary is a particular vice for Christians. But you can’t be involved in anything in life (religion, business, sports) without a degree of specialized knowledge. Perhaps it is the bullshit talk that Gall is reacting to.

    However, what Gall touches contrasting his two sets of friends is I was particularly interested in. One set, the artsy fartsy arrogant types, and the other ‘simple consumers’ reminds me of Jr. High all over again. Don’t we all live perpetually in a state of ‘un-coolness?’ Aren’t we always on the outside looking in? Don’t we all wish we could live among ‘the beautiful people?’

    Here’s where Morpheus’ poser comes in. Our desire to ‘belong’ often gives way to the shadow side of all of us that wants to be worshiped. The mire of self-pity and self-hatred is really a form, as a good doctor once told me, of narcissism.

    What struck me the most in ‘Sith’ was the character of Palpatine. It is easy to pick on politicians and such, but he reminded me of many of the bishops I know. Our house of bishops lives for the applause, the power and the gin and lace culture more than the self-giving love of the gospel. The Kingdom many of them represent is not the Kingdom we want to invite others to, because it smells like sulfur.

    But what of the Anakin in me? Many think of evil as the ‘obvious’ sins such as strippers and crack, but at the end of the day, I’ve never gotten over not being cool. I want applause, strokes, and props for all of my work and effort. I could use little power and gin and lace myself. The evil inherent in me perhaps is more subtle than the ‘obvious’ stuff, but much more insidious. Often the outward ‘destructive’ sin leads back to helplessness (and often dependence on God) because of its obvious danger, but the more subtle and shadowy parts of ourselves only grow worse and worse until the Dark side closes in on us.

  8. Gall,

    I resonate with your critique of Evangelicalism and its ‘easy answers’ and the idea that being ‘saved’ is the once-for-all magic bullet.

    Yes, Christ saves us powerfully. However, what of the poison that a lifetime in the skin of Adam has produced? We are naive to think that there is not much ‘work’ to be done in, through, and by us. Evangelicalism often does not live in reality. We are ‘saved’ but still behave like assholes? It just doesn’t add up. Your diagnosis, Gall, is on the mark.

  9. Fr. Neo, I had just posted a comment to my blog about the church living in a “mental” vacuum before reading your comment about Evangelicalism not living in reality… Also your reference to the gin and lace group made me laugh. I have been calling our church heirarchy “the lace and beanie brigade” for quite a while now…

  10. Dan,

    Ah, an ‘open and affirming.’ (The reality is open and affirming only to the open and affirming). ‘Open and affirming’ is also short for the ‘theology of tugs and hugs.’ Where as evangelicals ignore the poison of Adam, the ‘open and affirming’ types give it to you in a wine glass.

  11. So I’m casually grazing in a pasture of books at B&N when a small, curious (cover pic) stack on a point-of-sale table, mixed among a myriad assortment of other books, catches my eye. It’s “Status Anxiety” by de Botton. Hey…isn’t that the book mentioned…?? “Listen to your life. Pay attention!” says a wise man I admire and respect immensely. I’ll let you know what my life is trying to tell me when I finish reading it. Maybe something or maybe nada (now there’s a safe bet).

  12. Seraph,

    Our church is indeed open and affirming to most. We do limit our open-ness to sinners, though.

    And I’ll always be glad to serve you and all others up a cup of God’s love any time. Poison, indeed, to those who reject it.

  13. “Specialized Knowledge” may not be the main problem here. As Fr. Neo wisely points out. You cannot be actively involved in anything with out gaing some “Specialized Knowledge”. But I think the trick is, at least being a follower of Christ, is to not to make others feel your superior to them in your knowledge. We should put all others before ourselves. If not this treat all others as equals at the very least. As todays Gospel reading reminds us, for those that are RC, “But many that are first will be last, and (the) last will be first.” Mark 10:31

  14. Seraph (and I apologize for taking up the padre’s website for this dialog, but one last question),

    What is a theology of ‘tugs and hugs’?

    Feel free to write me at my blog or my church’s blog or my email, if you wish.


  15. Baby Hugs and Tugs from ‘Care Bears’ fame. I get rough with new bloggers. It keeps fatherneo’s site more interesting.

  16. Gall wrote:
    “Specialized knowledge is a comfort for a time: as you recall, Fr Neo, I bought the Nicene encyclopedia from you – and have read the bulk of it, and washed it down with desert fathers and Philokalia. It was – and in some ways continues to be – helpful, but it is not adequate to the task of living on its own…and neither are the giant thoughts and truths in that library.”

    What good is this knowledge from these sources “in the head”, so to speak, rather than “in the heart”? I struggle with this very thing, but reading through part of the same three sources you mentioned started to work on me, and guide me toward actually living inside the practice of Orthodoxy. Yes, I mean actually going to an Orthodox church (capital O). Gall, have you tried it? (not a rhetorical question…) I must say the last six months as a catechumen have been incredible – I have become aware of so many things at the heart level that simply reading the Fathers from outside the Orthodox church could have ever done – and from this vantage, I can see I have SO far to go.

    Later you write:
    “I have to decide what to do in response. Do I claim that the island is the whole world? Do I claim that the island is the only spit of land that matters? Do I abandon the island and swim for some other island or the mainland?”

    Here is an awful lot of the word “I”. My question for you to ask yourself: “Do I submit to Christ’s church?” I am not talking about surrender here – you made excellent points about the “plowed field”. But submission still involves participating in the work of the field, just not as the field owner… My priest points out that God gives us free will, but our need is to submit. It is nearly paradoxical, like the sacraments themselves – a true indicator of being on the “right track”. For me, I could not really try and submit without renouncing the pride I had in myself as a Protestant. I have nothing to protest, for my heart’s desire is to submit. I hope I get better at it, because it seems the longer I go to an Orthodox church, the further I realize I am from this. When I was a Protestant, I though pretty highly of my spiritual achievements and my knowledge. I know now that this was a temptation of the devil himself.

    Morpheus wrote:
    “Now, please Gall, don’t get wrapped up in the terms or anything. This is about something real, not just specialized words we’re trying to show facility with. It may seem abstract, but it is not complex. Surrender to Christ (God) is a posture of submission, immediately felt. Symbolically it is kneeling before His altar.”

    One of my favorite Orthodox priests, monks, and writers, as some of you know, is Fr. Seraphim Rose. He speaks to this better than I can. In the chapter “Orthodoxy and the heart” (chapter 86, pg. 825) in the book “Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works” he is quoted:

    “True Christianity does not mean just having the right opinions about Christianity–this is not enough to save one’s soul. St. Tikhon (of Zadonsk) says: ‘If someone should say that the true faith is the holding and confession of correct dogmas, he would be telling the truth, for a believer absolutely needs the Orthodox holding and confession of dogmas. But this knowledge and confession by itself does not make a man a faithful and true Christian. The keeping and confession of Orthodox dogmas is always to be found in true faith in Christ, but the true faith in Christ is not always to be found in the confession of Orthodoxy…. The knowledge of correct dogmas is in the mind, and it is often fruitless, arrogant, and proud…. The true faith in Christ is in the heart, and it is fruitful, humble, patient, loving, merciful, compassionate, hungering and thirsting for righteousness; it withdraws from worldly lusts and clings to God alone, strives and seeks alwys for for what is heavenly and eternal, struggles against every sin, and constantly seeks and begs God’s help for this.’ And then he quotes Blessed Augustine, who teaches: ‘The faith of a Christian is with love, faith without love is that of the devil.’ “

    It seems the ‘specialized knowledge’ of Orthodoxy is important, although it alone is not of the heart. It does, however, guide the heart in true Christianity. I thank Fr. Neo for lending me vol.1 one of the Philokalia, and Ante-Nicene Fathers, for the words therein have in part guided me to the Orthodox faith. And I have so much to learn and unlearn.
    Gall, if you’ve really read all of that stuff, please, please, give Orthodoxy a six month to one-year run. Don’t give up on it.

    Forgive me,
    The Catechumen John

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