Faith in Humanity

As much as possible, I try to focus on what is good in the world and to appreciate the generous and thoughtful actions of others. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to understand what motivates people to do the things they do.

For example, today the following happened:

  1. Someone decided to leave a disgusting mess all over the toilet seat in the washroom at work and didn’t even bother to flush. Surely the person must have known that wasn’t appropriate, so why do that in a place you work with others?
  2. A man ahead of me on the sidewalk deliberately tossed a food wrapper on the ground and kept walking without even looking to see if anyone was watching. He was metres away from a garbage container.
  3. I made the mistake of reading the comment sections on some online news sites. There are very few activities that can destroy one’s faith in humanity quicker than reading the online comments submitted by anonymous trolls.

On a positive note, two strangers running by on our street helped us to corner our puppy who had escaped from the house. They didn’t even bother to stop their watches first (that’s a big deal for runners).

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The Collective

Leadership is not about us as individuals; rather, leadership is about us in relation to others. This may seem simplistic or idealistic, but when leadership is viewed less as personal attainment or privilege and more as a component of healthy community, leaders will speak, act and respond in ways that benefit the collective, not just those in positions of authority.

When we view leadership within this context of relationship and community, we can focus on developing the leadership skills that will enrich not only our own lives but also the lives of those around us. Our Western culture, however, promotes leadership as something we should aspire to and fosters individualism and personal achievement.

It is far too easy to see each position of leadership as a stepping stone to greater levels of status and authority. Not only does this shift the focus from working for the collective good, it also creates a sense of competition between leaders as they jostle for positions and recognition.

In my experience, this is most clearly demonstrated by how people treat the leaders above them. If we work to undermine our leaders, we will only inherit followers who are conditioned to do the same. I also think we need to have the same integrity as followers that we want our leaders to demonstrate.

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Status Anxiety

“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.

Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?

Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?

It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.

When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, bohemianism).

De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. While every person is unique, it is still necessary to find commonality with others and build community.

“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”

In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”

As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.

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