Peer with even modest depth into the heart of virtually any person within Western culture selected at random and you will find a question unmatched in its capacity to motivate, cajole, and shame the human spirit. It is sometimes asked explicitly and daily; it’s more often wholly unconscious for an entire life, directing one’s affairs like the gravitational pull of an unseen star. It can shove us into a career we loathe; it can convince us to surgically alter our faces; it can force us to buy a particular car. It can propel us to cure disease and produce aching works of art and mow our lawn. That question is “How am I doing at life in the eyes of others?”
I recently took a commercial flight and was forced to pay attention to the airline’s in-flight self-promotional commercial. As I recall it depicted mothers and fathers waking up at some ungodly hour to kiss their still-sleeping babies goodbye so they could board a flight that would sling them far afield in order to further their business efforts. A mother displays the requisite lamentation as she kisses her angelic son goodbye, but as she enters the airport coffee in hand, her face aglow in the light of the airline’s logo, her self-pleased smile reassures us that she made the right decision. It ends with the zinger: “Keep Climbing.”
Of course the airline cannot and will not ever tell us why we should keep climbing, or where. They are not in the business of “being” anywhere; theirs is the business of “going.” Their service matches our time, an age of going far more than an age of being. Less concerned than ever with the essentially spiritual question of how to be, our culture has become increasingly organized by the notion of continuing to climb a vertical hierarchy to nowhere in particular. The basic organizing social principle of our time is the religion of success.
The pursuit of success within our culture is a religion because it is a robust system of meaning-making that operates at an emotional and cognitive level, guides our decisions, contains its own morality, is buttressed by particular rituals, and is practiced en masse by a group of people sharing a largely unexamined ideology. The success the religion worships is not success as self-actualization, self-defined and self-adjudicated, but is instead success as determined by one’s perceived place in the social hierarchy of one’s given or chosen in-group.
The religion of success is a highly dangerous game, and yet so many of us are unaware of the extent to which we are compulsively laying our lives at the foot of its altar. It is so woven into our way of being, so integrated at the machine layer of our ideology, that we must listen closely in a quiet inner space to hear the ever-buzzing anxiety it produces. “Am I doing all this well enough?”
Many people are brought to therapy in part as a result of this anxiety, consciously or otherwise. In working with it, it is useful to contrast two quite different sources of the concern with one’s place vis-à-vis one’s peers: one healthy and inextricably human, the other a largely cultural artifact of the West that must be worked with well if we are to find the contentment we all seek. In the former we seek to know our sufficiency; in the latter we seek to know our superiority.
Of course, it is deeply, inescapably human to yearn to have our basic sufficiency reflected back to us. We long for inclusion and social safety, for true membership at the very least, and perhaps beyond that for ascendance to a position so lofty that it lies beyond reproach. And even more powerful than our yearning for inclusion is our terror of exclusion, of being cast out, or of being tolerated virtually unnoticed at the margins, relegated to picking up on the scraps of life left behind by those really living. Such yearning is embedded in the software of what it is to be a person; concern with our social standing has for millennia driven our evolution. We are the descendants of innumerable individuals who were appropriately concerned with—and successful at navigating—the staggering complexity of social relationships. There’s no other way they could have stayed alive long enough to reproduce and successfully rear their young.
And in this modern time we continue to need each other desperately, both to meet our basic organismic needs for food and shelter, and our loftiest needs for meaning and love. Healthy interdependence is the gateway to both surviving and to thriving, and our capacity to achieve it is entirely contingent on our own social sufficiency, our being “good enough” for cooperation, for love. Much of the work of healing in our lives revolves around this central question of knowing that we are deserving of the belonging that has always been central to the motivation of Homo sapiens. Not infrequently, this work involves confronting and adjusting the distortions of self-concept imparted by caretakers who were unable to lovingly and accurately reflect our basic worth. We must know the fact of this basic worth if we are to move through the world making self-respecting, nourishing choices, if we are to offer ourselves freely and hopefully to our work, our communities, our loved ones.
And yet Homo sapiens in the West have become organized by a hyper-individualism that demands even more. For so many of us a sense of one’s sufficiency for membership is, painfully, not enough to quell the inner voice that demands not belonging, but supremacy. The religion of success is unrelenting in its imperative: Keep Climbing.
My practice is full of folks who have ascended to professional heights that exceeded even their own early hopes, and yet remain consumed with a sense of incompletion, fraudulence, and even failure. The problem of course is that their unconfronted narcissism—their hunger for supremacy—has compelled them to keep climbing but has never even hinted at an actual destination; it’s only dangled a vague notion of something that awaits up there that will feel like some sort of arrival, a shimmering Eden perhaps where all feelings are pleasant and all others fawn. Since no reality could possibly match this unarticulated fantasy, it never feels quite right, despite how well and tirelessly they’ve climbed. For so many, it produces a crisis. The more fortunate ones are aware of the crisis and work to confront it. Many others simply keep climbing until the engine gives way.
So what are we to do?
Each of us would do well to discern what motivates us, and come to make life decisions informed by wisdom, rather than compulsion, cultural or otherwise. If I am to truly live, what is there to experience in this brief time? That is, what do I believe will most deeply feed me? And what choices and ways of being are most likely to bring these things to my life?
Perhaps for many of us this would imply the following of a middle path: enjoying the knowledge of one’s own enoughness (and living from that foundation) while also honoring in some measured way the imperative to possess some degree of social status. Perhaps too this middle path would instill an internal sense of sufficiency and the social status that is perhaps most nourishing: the deep regard given to the person who knows, and values, who she is.