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Social Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Insecurity, Anxiety and Self-Knowledge

Hong Kong is known for conspicuous consumption. People vie with each other to show off their latest acquisitions and their taste for the finer things in life. Unfortunately, this isn’t a harmless game. Not only can it lead to financial problems — more important, it is often a poor solution to insecurity, unhappiness and anxiety. Below is an interview with “Mark”, a man who lived the high life for many years, came to realize its damaging potential, and started making changes accordingly. Tim: You had a big change in the way you lived your life in the last few years. Mark: A couple of events led me to see things from a different perspective. One, a financial crisis, and another, a painful health issue suffered by a loved one. To illustrate my mind-set at the time, there’s an expression I came across that struck a chord: “Too many people are buying things they can't afford, with money that they don't have... to impress people that they don't like.”

I was working very, very hard, but also spending hard. I used material goods and certain kinds of friends and activities as a way of counterbalancing insecurities and anxiety. T: What kinds of things were you doing to keep up with the Joneses? M: There was a kind of decadence in the things that I was doing. I was escaping. There were a lot of very expensive restaurants, wine-appreciation groups, fancy vacations and mingling with people that I ultimately didn’t have much in common with. These were things that I aspired to, but they didn’t bring real rewards. T: What DID it all do for you? It obviously had some reward. M: Absolutely. The aesthetic, physical pleasure of possessing wonderful, beautiful things. There is great beauty in the design of material things, good food, complex and sublime wine, travel, hotels. But it has to be affordable, limited, and satisfactory in a deeper sense. It was overkill — doing very costly things without thinking of the consequences of the future. But you come away a bit hollow in the end. T: What made it hollow? M: It was all about people, but ultimately it was all about myself. There was a hollowness in the people who co-indulged in these things, I couldn’t get past a wall that existed in them. As I tried to engage in deeper stuff I was easily batted away and taken back to the subject at hand which was the wine, the travel, the car, the cost, the investment or whatever. It was difficult to go deeper, to make it more interesting. After three or four years, I would have expected to deepen the relationship, but that didn’t happen. T: Was it just at these gatherings with these people? M: No, it was across my whole life. At the heart of it there are strong insecurities, or more accurately, anxieties. It was about displaying these baubles to friends, business associates, family. It’s a temporary balm for these insecurities, it’s escapist. You escape, you live in a world, dress yourself in these things and you believe you’re getting away from who you really are. You create a gap with the real you. And it’s a very painful procedure to face yourself in the mirror as you try to understand this “reality gap”. T: Because at your core you know what’s really going on, who you are. M: As St. Augustine said “Lord, make me pure, but not yet!” T: Meaning “I’m going to have to stop this someday, but not yet please.” M: Yes, because I don’t want to face it yet. And when I tried to adjust, I took away the temporary balm and also had the pain of having to face my anxieties. T: And how did you manage to walk away from all of this? M: Three things. The first was the meditation I’ve been doing for several years, trying to get to understand myself. The second was age. As I grew older and faced my future, I started planning and I realized that a lot of the expenses were not sustainable. And finally there were the slaps in the face that I got from life, things like cancelled contracts, health issues, unpleasant things happening to people dear to me, and these cast a harsh light on what my priorities were. Some people might go deeper into the escapist route, but perhaps because of the work I’d been doing to get to know myself it took me in the right direction. The meditation was very helpful in taking more control of my life. The meditation was targeted at managing anxieties, mood swings, outbursts... T: It’s almost as though your life had been controlled by the imperative to do these escapist things. M: Not totally, but it was certainly a prevailing thread. It’s the Victor Frankl school of psychotherapy, it’s all about the meaning of life. I gained some insight, and it was painful, very painful to go through. It was the bridging of the gap between who I was pretending to be, and who I really was. But when I did that, I increased my confidence, and that put balm on my insecurities, my anxiety. It was quite healing. T: What changed when you came through this process? M: I sieved, and continue to sieve, through my life and try to focus on what is important. I realized my children, family, friends, time for myself, time for sport, health….these all had to take a balanced place in my life. What was superficial and unimportant is identified, given its proper perspective, and put to one side. What things did I put aside? Watching lots of TV. I dropped out of a number of wining and dining groups. The aspirational things that were costly and not rewarding. I’m not being Taliban about it, I still do those things, but much less frequently. I’ve downgraded the hotels I stay in on business trips, cut down expenses. I’ve recognized that I’m not a private jet kind of guy. I’ve been on a lot of private jets, but they’ve not been mine. T: You’ve hobnobbed with heads of state, senior government officials, billionaires and so forth. M: Yes, if hobnobbing means, on the rare occasions when this happened, being at their disposal for a fee, but not being one of them. They were living lives of extreme superficiality, and definitely not facing their demons. Definitely. I don’t think I ever met a happy billionaire, at least happy in the deeper sense. T: So how does it feel to have changed your life so much? M: This is still very much work in progress... it's a long journey whose rewards trickle through slowly and subtly. Often it’s two steps forward, one step back. But in the end, I find that these efforts bring a sense of perspective and enhance one’s self-respect and soothe anxieties. I guess everyone will have a different way of tackling these challenges, but it’s ultimately been highly rewarding.


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