In part two of this three-part series, Simon Edwards, Lead Missioner for the Zacharias Trust, continues to explore what the Christian faith says about the foundations for our personal significance in a world that places such a premium on status. 

According to research by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, trying to base one’s sense of self-worth and significance on external sources of achievement such as physical appearance or success in career, study, sport, music, travel or relationships results in more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders.

Why is that? Let me suggest some possible reasons. Those who measure their significance as a person in terms of accomplishment, or success, or in what they are able to do or achieve often find that their focus in life is always on the pursuit of the next goal, whatever it may be – wealth, family, career, relationship. These goals and their attainment come to entirely define the person’s sense of self – such that, over time, their life’s motto subconsciously becomes – “I achieve therefore I am”.

If I am what I do, my significance will be judged on how well I feel I am doing

I achieve, therefore I am. In other words, I am what I do. Does that feel uncomfortably familiar?

Now, among the many problems associated with this mindset or approach to life is this – that if I think that I am what I do, then my personal sense of significance will be judged on how well I feel I am doing; but how well I feel I am doing will inevitably be based on how well I feel I am doing in comparison to others. But if that is the case then I am now in a position where my sense of significance has actually become inversely proportional to how well others around me are doing. And if that’s the case it becomes increasingly difficult to genuinely celebrate the success of those around me.

In other words, basing our sense of significance entirely on what we do and what we achieve changes the way we see ourselves and the way that we see each other.

In ‘part 1’ of this series, I mentioned that I worked in a supermarket in my youth. And if you’ve ever worked in retail you will know that a product’s success has much to do with where it is placed on the shelf. According to the research, shoppers start looking at the shelf at eye level, work from left to right, and make their purchasing decision in fewer than eight seconds. If your product isn’t one that people are choosing in that eight second window, then retailers aren’t going to bother letting that product take up valuable shelf space.

And that’s why eye-catching packaging, and clever marketing of products is hugely important. And the different suppliers who come into the store, try all sorts of ways to convince the retail store owner to put their particular product in the places on the shelves that get the most buy, which is usually eye-level, because eye-level is buy-level. So, the good suppliers will try to buddy up to the store owner, and offer all sorts of incentives to get them to do this.

And it’s really interesting when two competing suppliers, are in the store at the same time. Rarely do they smile at each other and say, isn’t it cool that we sell really similar products. Usually, they don’t even acknowledge the other person, or if they do, its in a very awkward sort of way.

The coveted space where we are seen, recognised, valued and chosen

What happens to human relationships when everybody is competing with everybody for that contested shelf space? What happens to human relationships when everybody is competing with everybody for that coveted space where we are seen, recognised, valued and chosen? What happens is, we tend to treat ourselves and others as objects, comparing and evaluating each other in the way we value products in the marketplace.

And this tendency or general trend towards objectification or commodification of the human person has received a huge turbo-boost in recent years through the way in which social media technology is shaping society. Facebook, and Instagram and Twitter are not just places we socialise but places we market our lives to others, and compete for attention and acceptance.

In the critically acclaimed sci-fi series Black Mirror, each episode explores in disturbing detail the ways in which technology is our shaping society. One of the most memorable episodes imagines a world in the not too distant future in which we’re completely dependent upon social media and people can rate one another, out of 5 stars, based on appearance and even the most brief interaction, everything from that sideways glance you gave the woman walking past you on your morning commute to the lack of enthusiasm you displayed for the birthday gift your co-worker gave you. And these ratings have real world implications: drop below 4 stars and you’ll start to lose some friends, or plummet below 3 stars and you could lose your job or be barred from certain businesses or gatherings.

As one article in Business Insider magazine put it, “It’s actually not too far-fetched from the world we live in now. Just imagine if you combined your Uber rating with the amount of likes you got on Facebook and the number of replies you received on Twitter in the last month. Now imagine that that singular rating determined everything about your life, from where you worked to the home you were eligible to live in.

This episode got a lot of people talking, wondering was this just a parody of the way things are now, or a prophetic vision of where we are headed if we are not too careful.

We compare ourselves against unrealistic, Photoshopped versions of reality

A new report by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK entitled #StatusofMind, on how social media platforms are impacting the well-being of young people has concluded that Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter all demonstrated decidedly negative effects on young people’s overall mental health, increasing users’ anxiety, depression, and problems with self-identity and body image. Author of the report, Matt Keracher, said these platforms draw young people to “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality.

According to Dr Jessica Strubel, who presented the lead study last year at the American Psychological Association on the effect of new dating apps like Tinder,  “People are living in a surreal world, creating these unattainable ideals and expectations that no one can meet. It’s creating a 24/7 constant need for impression and appearance management.

According to Britain’s NHS, the numbers of young people being admitted to hospital suffering from anxiety has tripled, in just the last five years, and John Cameron, who heads up the leading national helpline for young people, in a recent article in the Telegraph, said: “These problems are often impacted by a need to keep up with friends and to have the perfect life; and the 24/7 nature of technology means that young people can never escape this pressure.

It turns out the freedom – that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir and other existentialist philosophers talked about – to make yourself and remake yourself ad infinitum because you aren’t defined by anything except your own desires, is not a freedom, it’s a burden. Because it’s all on you. The relentless task of having to create or manufacture your own sense of identity, and self-worth and significance. It’s all on you, and thanks to social media technology – it’s now a 24/7 full-time job.

And that’s the nub of the problem – if we don’t know who we are then, as psychologist James Hollis puts it, our tendency is to think, “I am what the world says I am.” And if you were born after 1980 and the world is online, then the world is always keeping score.

As NY Times columnist David Brooks observes, even though technology means we are more connected than ever before we are actually in a crisis of disconnection. There’s a lot of loneliness. A lot of solitude. There’s a lot more anxiety born of competing than there is connecting born of intimacy.

And it’s not just the millennial generation who struggle here. This is part of the human problem – that we are all trying to find significance, self-worth and acceptance in what we do and what we can obtain and what we can achieve and it’s not working. It’s a burden we were never meant to bear.

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In part one of this three-part series, Simon Edwards explored the foundation for personal significance and, in the up-coming third part, Simon looks at how this foundation is rooted in the core of the Christian message.