The Games We All (secretly) Play

Apart from immediate physical needs status-seeking is the psychological activity of humanity. Social media for example is nothing but people in search of higher status.

The battle for status is often hidden, unknown even to the participants but universally played. We may act it out every waking hour and dream about it in our sleep and yet be largely oblivious to it.

People will compromise themselves in every other way but status, at least not in the particular status that matters to them. We emphasize the status in which we rank best. Economic status, that of ownership remains the first and obvious symbol of status but there are also various forms of “social status” though of course all status is social. The claim of status is a performance for others – without an audience this claim would be meaningless.

Some may surrender one type of status – usually economic – in order to concentrate on the more specialized social or political hierarchy of their peer group. What are called “principles” unless they can be kept completely secret are really displays of status, so too are the virtuous opinions that have to be shared.

Public accusations do double duty as both displays of righteousness and attempts to push others below the accuser. We don’t become selfless by simply accusing others of selfishness but this is how the human mind works; if the strategy fails it’s at least gratifying and empowering.

The submissiveness of what is called “service” are reassurances of hierarchy. Philanthropy is just another high status luxury good that the rich buy on the open market.

The indicators of status are often arbitrary, even counterproductive to well-being. In the US for example walking on the street rather than driving is a sign of low status – Americans generally see walking more than a block as an affront to their dignity. This is to the great disadvantage of personal and public health but status is apparently more important. In many poor countries obesity signals wealth and a high station and this is what matters.

Comparisons diminish with distance; we don’t usually measure ourselves with someone removed from our daily experience but our friends, neighbors and close family. We calibrate ourselves locally within our tribe.

Those who feel themselves socially assigned a low status will support extreme political candidates to shake up the societal order or scapegoat other groups to lower them below themselves.

The rigid social hierarchy portrayed in 19th century novels seems very strange, quite ridiculous to modern eyes but it’s useful to remember the equivalent of our own era are no less so, manifestations of powerful psychological drives that haven’t gone away.

By its nature status is a zero sum game of hierarchy; everyone clambering over everyone else to get ahead. It’s impossible to raise status without lowering it for someone else. It’s well to realize that we are hairless primates dressed up in clothes.

Nevertheless to be a truly conscious human being requires the giving up of the search for status, even its very existence. The two are simply incompatible. Like other forms of self consciousness status is really a lack of consciousness. Anyone who fails to get to grips with this issue is an entirely unserious person whoever they may be – in fact especially whoever they may be. They are mere puppets powered by forces they don’t understand.

Just as cold water is stimulating for the body, immersion in a loss of status is invigorating for the psyche. In the US this surrender might come about from something as simple as taking public transport or even walking more than a block. More generally refrain from making claims about yourself in speech, clothing, public acts and possessions and just observe what happens. What are you defending?

It’s lack of awareness that turns our actual defeats into fake victories and vice-versa. The realization of a bloated sense of self can be painful for this reason. Against that, there is an untapped spiritual potential in humiliation; that is in the realization with a quiet laugh to oneself of the insubstantiality of social fear, of how we were afraid of nothing more than childish ghosts under the bed.

In dismantling the self we find its inner mechanism is powered by the search for status. The road to freedom transcends this constant hunger that we all share. The compulsion to impress others is a form of delusion. Only when one is indifferent to both status and shame is there even the possibility of being fully alive.

Understanding as art and science