Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Volume 3, Number 14: Status Anxiety and Quiet Desperation

(Notes: I originally posted this entry on my Yahoo! GeoCities blog on April 29, 2008. Also, if anyone wants the full text of the Mitch Albom column referenced below, please e-mail me and I can send that to you.)

Recently, I've been going through Facebook and seeing all the friends I had who now have, by all appearances, a successful life and career, complete with a spouse and kids, and perhaps a McMansion.

By comparison, I have only recently gotten my career back on track, have no wife or kids, still live in a simple 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house, and I don't even have a high-definition TV yet.

But then I come across harrowing stories of people that do appear to be successful, only to ultimately self-destruct. And they not only take their own lives, but those of their entire families as well.

In August of 2004, Michael Waleskowski, a Waterford, Michigan police officer, was kicked off the force after being caught stealing from a drunken driving suspect. When asked why he even thought of doing such a thing, he mentioned that he was under an ever-increasing load of debt because he and his wife kept rolling their credit card debts into their mortgage. When he returned home, he decided that the shame from losing his job was so great, that not only could he not live with it, but neither could his wife or kids.

And a little over a month ago--on Easter Sunday, no less--it happened again.

In Iowa City, the vice-president of a bank embezzled over $500,000 in funds from that very bank, and had been doing so for 7 years. Having been charged with the embezzlement and fired from his job, he decided to kill his wife and kids (believing that death would be better for them than the shame of having a husband or father who stole from his own employer) before taking his own life.

Greed, ego-centrism and "status anxiety" led to the destruction of the Seuppel and Waleskowski families--first greed led to crime, then being ashamed of the crime led to the murder-suicides.\

I'll need to explain that last one, "status anxiety." It's the title of a book written by Alain de Botton a few years ago. He defines it as follows:

Status anxiety: A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society that we may, as a result, be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung, or are about to fall to a lower one.

He also says, "The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others' appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among."

Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom once quoted about a line from the writings of Henry David Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." He did so at the start of a January 14, 1990 column about a tire store manager named Lawrence DeLisle who, the previous summer, drove his station wagon into the Detroit River with his wife and kids inside. DeLisle and his wife survived; sadly, the kids did not. DeLisle cited his father's suicide and the pressures of work and bills and raising a family as reasons why his life would suddenly become so intolerable.

Albom's column, published on January 14, 1990, concluded with these paragraphs:
"How many more Lawrence DeLisles are out there? Who knows? He could be a lone troubled man or one of an army of walking time bombs. In eight years of reporting, I have learned this much: We never know what is going on inside the heads of the people next to us. Not even if we live with them, eat with them, work with them.

We never know. People bury their darkest thoughts; they appear perfectly normal. But inside, private demons--such as DeLisle's memory of his suicidal father--can chew at the heart, making the most simple parts of life seem too burdensome, and the most unthinkable solutions somehow appealing.

So we have men driving into rivers and parents selling babies and husbands injecting wives with poison to rid themselves of things such as debt and marital problems.

And we can only draw this conclusion: Perhaps surviving everyday life is more noble than we think. Perhaps we should ignore sports stars and actors and celebrate instead the husband or wife with two jobs and no bank account who still has time to hug the kids.

God knows not everyone is making out well. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." OK, Thoreau. I get it now.

It scares the hell out of me."
And it got me thinking... as we entered 2004, the Waleskowskis were living in a nice, big two-story house in an affluent suburb; the Seuppels were a very successful family with two wage-earners, a few adopted kids and a McMansion; and I was stuck in a situation where I had no wife, no kids, a dead-end job that didn't even cover my regular monthly expenses, and an insurmountable load of debt on top of all that.

Four years later, they're all dead. And despite my dire straits, I'm still alive.

Greed, ego-centrism and "status anxiety" led to the destruction of the Seuppel and Waleskowski families--first greed led to crime, then being ashamed of the crime led to the murder-suicides.

Every time I brood over opportunities that I either missed or was denied, bad situations that I could have avoided, or all kinds of unfair crap, I need to remember those kids, who never had a chance to overcome the shame their fathers brought upon them.

Heck, I should remember someone who never even got to live past age 20, a man who would easily have been successful at any job he wanted today... if only he were still alive. His name was Wes Wood. Wood was a rare person--he who was bright without being a nerd, athletic without being a "jock," nice and sociable to everyone he met. He was a Phi Beta Kappa and a member of the Harrison Hawk football team. Wood, who graduated from Farmington Hills Harrison High in 1988, had his life cut horribly short in 1990. A sophomore at Purdue University at the time, he went skydiving, and his parachutes malfunctioned. He plummeted to his death. I'll never forget when Joe George (who, like me, was a senior at Harrison at the time) going from one classroom to another with tears streaming down his face as he informed his fellow students about the tragedy. (George and Wood were teammates on that Hawk football team in 1987.)

I should remember how lucky I am to be alive, and not only that, to be alive in a free country, and on top of that, to be alive in a free country where, when I was deep in debt, I was able to get them lifted off my back without losing any of my freedom--or my life, for that matter.

Whenever I do, then not yet having that wife, those kids or even that HDTV doesn't seem so bad.

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