Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Life in the age of anxiety

Roger Cohen

May 27, 2015

There is a lot of status anxiety going about these days. People live suspended between the anxiety of being deluged in communication and the agony of receiving none.

They have always wanted to be liked, but now they must also be “liked”. They exist under the digital pressure of reciprocal judgment, a state that knows no repose.

They are either on top of things, a momentary illusion, or overwhelmed, a permanent state intermittently denied. They look around wondering how it is possible to keep up. They have access to everything and certainty about nothing. They zigzag between indulgence and denial, frenetic states and cleansing cures, their busy selves and their better selves. They have nightmares about getting a thumbs-down. They ask themselves how the Day of Judgment became day-in, day-out judgment. They make resolutions that unravel. They amass to-do lists that cannot get done. They are not sure where they stand on the ratings scales, on the lists that proliferate, on the global grading of everything and everyone.

This state crept up on them. How such unease came about, who willed it and with what design, was not quite clear, but it must, they thought, have something to do with what is called progress. Where it was headed was equally murky, but sometimes the destination looked unappealing, a place where peace had been crowded out by the pursuit of efficiencies.


Airports became strange places. They came to sound like jewellery stores. After the Sapphire members boarded came the Ruby members and then the Diamond folk followed by the Platinum people and the Emerald eminences with the Gold guys trailing after them; and, of course, there were also the Silver members and the Bronze hangers-on and some Topaz and Amethyst and Turquoise people and maybe a Garnet qualifier here and there; and, of course, before they boarded they had the heady status-bearing privilege of being “fast-tracked” through security, the “reward” for having endured the hell of air travel so often.

Left behind in this scramble for privilege were the riff-raff, the strugglers, who sat and smiled at their fate, particularly as they now tended to proceed through security faster and board more serenely as a result of the immense, often huffy scramble of the mutually scrutinising privileged with cards and luggage tags and other iconic symbols (in dress and purses and luggage etc) establishing their status.

This odd inversion of things could sometimes cause a ruckus. The privileged found it intolerable that the great unwashed were having an easier time than they. How, they demanded angrily, could it be that these “ordinary human beings” — they actually used the phrase — were receiving better treatment and seemed calmer, lounging around reading books and scarcely, it seemed, paying much attention to the boarding process?

Sometimes, in an access [excess? "access" works too. sort of.] of madness, they jumped over the barriers from the “fast-track” lanes and stormed the shorter, regular security lines, pushing and shoving the losers out of the way, brandishing their gold and ruby and emerald-coloured cards, talking about their “rights” and their hard-earned status, occasionally wondering at the equanimity with which the non-achievers (presumably) reacted to being pushed to the ground and trampled upon. In one scene of particular horror, offended Platinum, Emerald, Ruby and other status-laden folk ran amok with their brand-named luggage, storming helter-skelter between “fast-track” and ordinary track, seemingly unable to establish which was moving faster, tormented by the thought that they might somehow be losing out or suffering some unwarranted indignity.

This wild behaviour of the “lounge louts” (somebody coined the phrase) seemed to reflect the immense strain of having a lot, of accumulating, of follower-envy and friend-envy, of competing in every act and gesture. Or so the social psychologists and other observers suggested. They postulated that unease was accentuated, rather than allayed, by certain forms of material success, and that status, once gained, could become an obsession — its loss the spectre stalking every waking hour. After all, they noted, the airport conduct was illogical. In the end, it does not matter how fast you board the plane.

By comparison, having little or less seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.

The Chinese say: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.” Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom. Have petals of every colour and airline cards of none.



Roger Cohen is a columnist at The New York Times, where he was previously foreign editor

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