This letter from James Carlson in response to my posting a piece about “status anxiety” and its attendant ills, offers a nice glimpse of some of this very bright young American’s value system:
It’s interesting how much stress accretes around class distinction. I’m convinced that much of the energy we invest into personal appearance is generated by class-stress; one can ‘borrow’ limited membership in a particular class, it seems, by wearing the clothes associated with that class. Yet the real distinction between classes is much deeper than mere appearances—we all know that experience and common language are more likely to separate classes from one another.
When I started working in technology in the early 90s, I watched my personal earnings double year over year. Yet the characteristics of the actual moments of my life changed in ways that seemed unrelated to the level of income I earned—I remember when I purchased a new couch for my living room, it shocked me to think of actually paying for it (rather than simply finding one on the road, as I’d done before) and furthermore, on paying $1100 for it. It brought home the difference— I could afford to do things that I never could before. Doing things means having stories to tell later (the trip overseas that I could afford, for example) and these stories are what make our classes distinct from one another. What I noticed about myself, and what I was glad to find, was that the amount of money I made didn’t change the character of the moments of my life very much. So now that I have changed my career to focus on education, the arts, and the community , and drastically reduced my income as a result, I’m not feeling any pain. In fact, I’m finding that the wealth of my moments is growing even as the wealth of my pocketbook is shrinking. So now, I just don’t think about it anymore. What am I going to remember in ten years anyway? How much money I had, or how much fun I had?
Every time I read something like this, I have to think: If all the energy we spend worrying about getting to a higher place within our culture, and the energy spent analyzing that we have a desire to do this, and the energy spent collecting the data to be analyzed, and the energy spent publishing the publications that describe this phenomenon, and the energy spent designing those publications, editing, distributing, and the resulting conversations and so forth were all totaled up and converted to dollars—how many countries GNP would it exceed? How many calories is that? Could there be a diet based on not worrying, rather than eating protein? What other human problems could this energy be directed to solve?