Keeping up with the Jones?

Does it ever seem like the world is stacked against you and that nothing you do is successful? Everything seems impossible, life is unfair. Our minds can easily get hooked into a roller coaster of concerns large and small – I’m stuck in traffic, my car is nearly out of fuel, I’m late for work, I haven’t planner for dinner tonight, what should I say at that meeting tomorrow? How is my mum doing, when must I call her? Am I going to be warm enough today? I can get really caught up in this stream of thought, each concern stressing me out a little bit more than the last. But to be honest, aren’t these all middle class issues? I have a car, I can cook a range of things for dinner because my fridge is full. I have a job and earn money, I have parents I care for, I have plenty of clothes to wear.

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I am painfully aware that this is not the case for everyone. Many people in the world do not have enough food, clothing, housing, work or love. How can I possibly worry and be concerned when this is the case.

We seem to get lost in our own worlds and forget how relative they are. On a bad day I can look up to the people in luxury cars zooming past me on the motorway, envy the people who have no jobs or hobby jobs, gaze at the mansions and wish for high quality designer clothing. I can feel hard done to when compared to them, despite being incredibly well off compared to people with less than me. And there is the trick of it. The human race seems destined to compare ourselves to others, and to always want what more privileged people have – we seemed doomed to try to keep up with the Jones’.

I wondered if this scenario also played out if we consider the case of disadvantage as it does with privilege? So there I am in my middling life, neither rich nor poor. What disadvantages do I face and how do they compare to those either side of me?

I have very little free time, I work, drive, ‘wife’, keep a home and sleep. Fitting in exercise and ‘fun’ is a battle. I could afford them, but don’t have time for them. I have parents who are ageing and I struggle to find the time to see them and support them adequately but cannot afford to move them closer to me or to pay for carers to look after them. I work in an academic world where publishing and claims to knowledge are key to success, I feel oppressed by the regimes of truth and competitive environment I work in, driving me to work long hours and do a long commute.

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I am not living in fear of eviction, I am not in an abusive relationship, I am not trafficked. I do not go hungry to feed my family. I am not treated like an outcast by other people. So relative to others, these ‘issues’ seem like trifles. Looking in the other direction, the more privileged in society might fear the stock exchange, worry about who they are seen with and what press they get, what to do with their spare time, what cosmetic surgery to buy, whether they can afford that extra yacht. To me these seem ridiculous, far fetched, surreal even. Yet we know that money only brings us better health up to a certain point, and then all that extra money starts to cause ill health – through heart disease rather than starvation. So perhaps oppressive stress is biologically bad for us, no matter what its source is or where we are in the pecking order. I think we easily assume that life will be easier if we only had that better – house, job, relationship, car, whatever. But maybe it is just different rather than better?

What if the Jones’ have got it all wrong, would we still want to keep up with them then? What would it be like to keep up with ourselves rather than anyone else, to be content, just as we are, rather than looking ahead of ourselves and behind ourselves and counting the rungs of the ladder? I’m beginning to think that the pursuit of happiness is flawed and contentedness is the way to go – a way of life explained to me by a young man living in a Foyer (accommodation for young people who would otherwise be homeless). He has less than many of us in society, but was determinedly content. He is my inspiration for 2019, a year in which I will pursue feeling content and living without comparison.

Happy New Year.

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