I just read this book by Alain de Botton, and I've been thinking a lot about the topic of status anxiety as I prepare to give a message in worship on Sunday. We're doing a series on "Generosity, Stewardship & Simplicity," and so the title for my message is "Your Money or Your Life: a spirit of fear or a spirit of generosity?" I'm excited about it and have a lot of thoughts rolling around in my head, but it's hard to condense them into what I think is really important to say in 15-20 minutes. (Side note: it's amazing how 15-20 minutes talking in front of people sounded so long and scary in high school! I remember having to do a speech for that long and thought I would never have enough to say to fill that time.)
Basically what I've been thinking about is how much time, energy and resources we throw into maintaining our current status of living, at least for most of us in middle (and higher) class America. It seems like we have plenty to be generous with, but then we rope ourselves into mortgages, car payments, jobs with limited vacation time, and other responsibilities that "every good parent" or "every good citizen" should be involved in and care about. Thinking about giving up some of our money or time and living at a lower standard of living is scary. Why? Because we've bought into the idea that our status in the social hierarchy is a moral value.
De Botton does an excellent job of explaining this in his book. It's a book of philosophy at a very readable level, and he explains the problem in the first half of the book and then different angles of a solution to the problem. I appreciate that he doesn't just name the problem but that he tries to help us see a way out. (I'm not so good at that--I can name the problems all day long, but actually working toward a solution??? Someone else needs to do that part!)
So anyway, he explains how in medieval times, it was seen as an a priori truth that some people were born as nobles with privilege, and most were not, and that those were our God-given stations in life. As the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution occurred, it wasn't necessary to be born with privilege to be able to earn money and a name for oneself anymore. So now, since it's theoretically possible for anyone to make money and be "successful" in America, anyone who isn't can be seen as morally inferior. In medieval times, one didn't have to feel bad that one was a serf (or at least not as bad), because that was just the way things were. Now, if you're poor and can't get a good enough job to feed your family but you can't get an education because you have to work to at least put a little food on the table, you're labeled morally less worthy because you can't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Money has become the indicator of who is a "good" person, to a large extent.
And Christians, and Quakers even, have bought into this system.
It's not that most of us are afraid we won't have enough to cover basic necessities, it's that we're afraid people will think we can't take care of ourselves and aren't worth as much in their eyes because of it. The funny thing is that even simplicity has become a status symbol in some ways--Quakers act holier-than-thou because we shop organic or have a more fuel-efficient car or take retreats to meditate, but all these things are symbols of our financial status as well. We're a sub-group of snobs who act like we want to change the world but really we just want people to like us.
Ouch, that was harsh. Sorry, somebody's got to say it! And I'm guilty of it, too. But how do we get ourselves out of this status binge? How do we learn to allow God to name our status and not worry about what others think? What's the balance between having enough to live on and not going overboard to getting more and more stuff to try to fill the void of wanting to be loved?