Obsessed with Status and Popularity: An Exploration of Cultural Illness

Love only matters to us if we accept it.

Like Jay Gatsby, most of us find ourselves in the throes of a hyper-individualist, capitalist system, hoping to carve out a significant portion of its pie. And, similar to Gatsby, we tend to abandon any consideration for those beneath our place on the hierarchical ladder. Often, this is why loving and accepting love is such a challenge.

I’m of a dual mind. On the one hand, I detest every part of me that longs for popularity, that part of me that simply wishes for mass approval to boost me up on the social ladder. On the other, I feel as though it’s the only gift that I can present to the scarred child within. As I meet more people, I find that many others share this sentiment. When we ask ourselves why we can’t be loved, we should instead ask: why can’t we appreciate the love that’s already offered? With respect to my clients, many of them struggle with loneliness, but, much of it stems from a stubbornness and lack of gratitude, probably even the sheer terror of acceptance.

I’m reminded of a scene in the film, To Hell and Back, about the singer Meat Loaf. After reaching critical acclaim, he’s still unhappy, asking his wife, Leslie Aday, “Why do they keep knocking me down? They make me feel like I’m still just that fat kid, never gonna amount to anything.” In response, she notes that she and their children never thought of him that way, which he discounts by telling her that they’re family. In the film’s pivotal moment, she becomes stirred and consequently challenges him, in turn asking, “Oh, and that’s not enough for you?!” Going on, she says, “So, what is? Because if you’re trying to please the whole world, honey, it will never be enough. Open your eyes, Meat; you have gotten more right in your life than most people dream of; you just have to let yourself see it.” Meat profoundly struggled with the Gatsby delusion, believing that some day, if he obsessed hard enough and remained indefatigable, he would attain the unattainable, his place at the top of the ladder as the indisputable and very best. Yet, throughout his struggles with alcohol abuse and self-loathing, his family was a constant; he just didn’t, or couldn’t, value them.

In an attempt to silence the doubter of his mind, Meat tried to silence all of his critics. If he were to reach life’s pinnacle, the depression, self-torment, and cravings for escape would magically disappear, or so he believed. Why then value something you already have, something that doesn’t help? His obsession with hierarchy, high-status, and popularity was ultimately a means to cure himself, however unattainable the cure actually was.

One of my clients told me that he didn’t know how to cultivate self-esteem without status-seeking; to him, abandoning his obsessive chase was akin to hopelessness or death. And it’s hard to blame him for faulty thinking when considering the culture which aids and encourages his goals; he’s as obsessed with status as most in his environment. He finds dating challenging because he discounts his prospective partners, and he can’t seem to muster up a lick of pride in his own achievements. For him, it’s brilliance and beauty or bust; nothing else appears to matter. But if an interloper were to intervene, he may point out how loved and privileged my client is. It isn’t that he isn’t desirable; it’s that he isn’t desirable by those whom he desires back.

The notable philosopher Lewis Gordon, in recounting the relationship between the abolitionist and intellectual Frederick Douglass and his mother Harriet Bailey, maintained that everything in Douglass’ “society was telling him that the love he was receiving was not valuable. To be loved by an enslaved woman was to be loved by a piece of property who lacked the capacity to bring value to the world.” Thus, if he wanted her love, he needed to find a way to receive it by first appreciating it. So, how do we do that? How do we begin to value what others may not or what we discount on our own?

Unfortunately, I don’t have specific, concrete answers. As long as our culture is obsessed with status, people will continue to find the pull of hierarchy much too tempting. As long as children are bullied and imbued with flagellating ideations, some of them will continue to seek revenge, attempting to surpass their tormentors. In the end, what seems to help the most is knowing that the system we created and sustain makes each of us miserable. Even if on top, whatever that means, the pull of despair gathers strength in perpetuity with our age. Champions fall; beauty fades; and we simply become the monsters we once loathed. This is the world we leave behind.


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