GUEST COLUMNIST: It is always an age of anxiety when ‘more’ is the measure of happiness
By Gerard Howlin

IT is angst, not abortion, that is the issue.

Angst is the slow, gnawing, niggling worry from which no assurance can relieve us. We suffer incurably from it, though less so in good weather. But good weather is infrequent, so remission is rare. The condition is inoperable and untreatable. Lunatics, mystics, and a few extraordinarily grounded people can be immune. But, in the main, it is the silent, incurable plague that sweeps all before it into the grave.

Many sufferers can go a lifetime without having a successful diagnosis. This is for the best, given angst’s permanency and inoperability. Others suffer appalling public outbreaks. This is pernicious, because it is contagious.

The epidemiology of a public outbreak of angst makes bubonic plague look like a spate of head lice in a classroom. Head lice might be the social death that ends the whirlwind of sleepovers, but no lasting harm is done, except to the reputation of the family everyone agrees to hold responsible.

Perhaps some good is achieved, by head lice, at least. The young are taught, at a tender age, that parental pretensions are, well ... pretentious, and that life is messy and itchy.

Head lice outbreaks initiate children into a culture of finger-pointing and blame. They are especially successful in inculcating a capacity for damning innuendo without the need for any reliable evidence.

But the itch that is angst, for which there is no cure, is a deadly canker of the soul. There is no lotion for it; only a life spent scratching it. In the past, it was a condition indeterminably encompassed by original sin.

But, now that there are no longer any sins, only feelings, it is the time when you don’t feel happy, but don’t know why. If, in the past, it overlapped with sin, advanced thinkers suggest it is now more akin to economics.

Modern, materialist philosophers propose that a lack of equality and opportunity are responsible for angst. They vary in their prescriptions, from a ‘rights-based’ approach to socio-economic issues to a radical free-market rolling back of the state and loosening of controls. The latter tide of opportunity would lift all boats.

Alas, that tide overshot and turned out to be a tsunami. This approach is now discredited and its previously popular proponents disgraced.

A ‘rights-based’ approach to socio-economics is more traditional. It is, once again, respectable and enjoying a revival among fashionable thinkers. It purports to be based on an equality that is nice to aim for, even if, thankfully, it is never achieved, Our president thinks of little else at Aras an Uachtaráin and he espouses it magnificently and often.

But neither a sense of sin nor an understanding of economics encompasses the magnitude of what ails us. The angst we suffer from is neither completely caused by recession nor can it be cured by recovery. There is ample evidence that its most acute outbreak was concurrent with the razzmatazz of the Tiger years. The angst that ails us, and which cannot be cured, is status envy.

We are not so much obsessed by ourselves as by others. Our slide rule is their success. Lifelong careers are embittered, not because of objective failure, but because of a lack of triumph over others.

The fact of being better- or worse-off is secondary to how we compare to neighbours, colleagues and, most perniciously of all, friends.

“Everytime a friend of mine succeeds, a little part of me dies,” was the observation of the great modern author of malice and envy, Gore Vidal. Nobody who has ever had a malicious thought could disagree.

Status envy has profound effects on our education system. Where, once, a Leaving Certificate was an admirable standard, a degree is universally required, to satisfy parental angst and answer the question ‘where did you go to college?’ Where, indeed? If that college was a technical institute, it will likely be clamouring for university status.

Where nurses once trained vocationally on the job, they now have degrees. When their traditional status slipped amid an economy full of increasing choices, nurses demanded to become professionals.

Now, laden down with degrees, they are being ‘yellow-packed’. It is an explosion of status anxiety.

And not only nurses, but journalists, too. Technical training, apprenticeships, and vocational training on the job couldn’t withstand status anxiety. A graduation ceremony was required for bragging rights. A lot of academic qualifications are like spray-on tan. They look the part, but rub off on contact with the reality for which they are intended to prepare people.

Across the countryside, as families became smaller, houses became bigger. Exploding bungalows on steroids, with an upstairs added for effect — they couldn’t have been two-storey houses designed to look like that — were studded with the loot acquired on shopping trips to New York. Grandparents could remember a time when the busiest shopping day of the year in Irish cities was Dec 8. Grandchildren, who shopped all year around, didn’t know what Dec 8 was.

A DWINDLING belief in the immaculate conception was part of the greatest status dislocation of all. In that smaller, smugger Ireland, family determined status. The seed, breed, and generation of everyone were known intimately by all. It was the black hole into which all achievement could be pulled down. You were ever only one of the Murphys from here, or one of the Howlins from over there. And we always reminded upstarts that they were nobodies. There was honesty about our ancient begrudgery that I miss.

Free secondary education came and people from families who would never have gone to secondary school got to university, or at least an IT.

They had good jobs, with good money, or at least had good credit cards. We all pretended to be delighted at how well everyone else was doing. But, secretly, we seethed with status envy.

You couldn’t have the pleasure of going on a foreign holiday without coming home and having to listen to the woman who cleaned your house tell you she had been there, as well.

Nothing can be truly enjoyed unless somebody else is deprived of it. This is what life is about. All marketing plays on it and all politics panders to it. In the case of the left, their ‘exclusive’ offering is the sense of moral superiority that can only be bought by practising their policies. For the rest, they just shout ‘come and get it’. And we do: we tuck in, gravy and giblets dribbling down our cheeks.

Careers, cars, house extensions and holidays are implements of the torture of status anxiety. Another’s success is like whiplash. Newspaper columnists, who are nobodies or has-beens, are particularly pathetic cases. Their craving for attention makes a stripper seem shy.



Lifestyle

Christmas visitors, log fires and central heating overload – how will your houseplants survive?

6 natural hangover remedies to save you the morning after the office Christmas party

Ask a counsellor: ‘My wife’s new friend has made working from home a challenge’

Making Cents: Prepare financially now for mortgage hunting in 2019

More From The Irish Examiner