The Social Climb

Every human group has a social ladder, even if the group’s core value is decrying the horror of a social ladder. In the city where I grew up, your rank grew with the size of your house, the number and make of the cars in your driveway, and the shine of your stuff. In the outdoor world where I’ve spent much of my young adult and adult life, your rank grows with how far, how fast and how hard you climb or run or bike or boat. In the little mountain town that is my chosen home, your rank grows by how much do-gooding you do and by how fervently you pursue personal growth. In the part of Boston, where I live now, your rank grows by the number of academic diplomas you’ve accrued, and who issued said diplomas. Each group has its distinct currency. There are many places I have not lived and thus many social ladders whose rungs I am unfamiliar with, but I do know that each place I’ve gone that is inhabited by people, there is a social ladder. And each ladder is—at least for me—in some ways enticing and in some fundamental ways repulsive.

Modern day philosopher, Alain de Botton explains this phenomenon in his book Status Anxiety in this way: “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first—the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale.” This second tale—the more secret and shameful one—is the quest to gain status.

Botton’s book examines how the western world has defined status for the last several generations, and how it reached such a fever pitch with the birth of the idea of the United States being a meritocracy. This myth of meritocracy is so firmly lodged in the American psyche that to question it is to question the bedrock of the country. But like all stories we tell ourselves, this one is only true for certain people with certain circumstances. Yet because it’s in the groundwater, it feels like an immutable truth that everyone in the United States can indeed pull him or herself up by those bootstraps and clamber right on up to the tippy top of the ladder. There are enough such stories that the truer reality—of success being a confluence of privilege, luck, timing, and a pinch of ingenuity—gets lost in the roar of the American Dream. Prior to the idea of meritocracy, if you were a person of low societal status, you could blame your lot in life on circumstances beyond your control, but as Botton says, “to the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now adds the insult of shame.” Not only are you of low status, but also it’s your own damn fault that you are all the way down there at the bottom of the ladder.

In his poem, Desiderata, Max Ehrmann poignantly notes: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Yes. A thousand times yes. Comparison is a curse I carry very close to my heart. I am a champion comparer. A gold medalist at this point--I feel sure, and I know I'm not alone in this misery making footrace. But I do not think, with all due respect to Max Ehrmann, that it is an IF you compare yourself, but rather a WHEN you compare yourself. Comparison, 'thief of joy' that it may be, feels rooted in human social fabric.

While you can’t fully escape status anxiety, you can find a new group, and you can consciously exchange your old social ladder for a new one that reaches in the direction of different virtues. But the ladder does remain, because, as social creatures, part of our individual story is defined by how we live in relation to others. Another tactic, besides swapping ladders, is that you can try to covet status less. Perhaps some truly enlightened souls can arrive at a state of not caring a wit for what society thinks of them, but for us mortals, the aspiration is likely going to be to soften, rather than to vanquish, comparison tendencies. I fundamentally mistrust anyone who says they’ve moved beyond comparison. Of course, I think some people are more skilled at the important practice of cultivating self worth than others, but any self-reported flawless track record invites my skepticism. As Botton says, “Nothing could be nobler, or more fully human, than to perceive that we are indeed fundamentally, in every way that really matters, just like everyone else.” And that commonality includes wading in the muck of desiring status.

My life trajectory has been erratic. I’ve dipped my toe in many ponds, and settled in none. I know I don’t want my social ladder to be one of material wealth acquisition, but I say that from a position of wealth, so if all my resources burned up, I’d likely be singing a different tune. I also know that I’ll never run fast or far enough, or be physically daring enough, to earn acclaim in the outdoorsy world, though I will persist in that world as a mediocre performer because I love it. And while I love the virtue of the do-gooders, the humorlessness that sometimes accompanies this ladder can be truly insufferable (and I say this from a place of knowing how devastatingly humorless I can be sometimes). This is the ladder where people decry the ladder, without realizing that they are on their own set of rungs made slippery by the blood of bleeding hearts.

So picking a ladder, it turns out, isn’t so easy. I suppose ultimately you choose the ladder or ladders that you think are less bad and more in tune with your soul, and hopefully don’t forget that the ladder you are climbing is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

And what of this possibility of softening? Of caring less about what the world thinks of you? Botton states: “We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.” Humor it seems is the answer here. Developing a greater sense of humor about how small, insignificant, and terribly un-special, even the most special among us are.

David Whyte, my favorite poet, said this in a public conversation: “I often feel that one of the real signs of maturity is not only understanding that you’re a mortal human being and you are going to die, which usually happens in your mid 40s or 50s…But another step of maturity is actually realizing that the rest of creation might be a little relieved to let you go. That you can stop repeating yourself, stop taking all this oxygen up, and make way for something else…” I do not think that Whyte was endorsing a group swan dive off the proverbial cliff here, but rather was doing what the most skilled artist do best: getting us to see the world as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, and allowing us to see the beauty (and importantly the humor) in that reality.