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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Suffering From A Snobbery That Isn’t Ours

Some of us belong to a particular cohort who were given – from a young age, almost certainly by our parents – a powerful sense of the importance of knowing the right sort of people. We, the children of socially fragile elders, were made to understand, by the peculiar osmosis that goes on in families, that the world is not made up of equals, whatever the hopeful democratic slogans might say, but is instead stratified into very unlike layers, some of which contain humans who are very much worth ingratiating oneself with while others are home to unfortunates who must be shunned, feared and (when no one is listening) cleverly mocked.

We might, as children, have been dressed in very smart clothes and told in no uncertain terms to smile, to look up from our polished shoes and to be highly polite at gatherings where the right sort of people were exchanging witticisms and greeting each other with heightened enthusiasm. Or we might have been in our pyjamas, standing in the doorway to the bedroom, watching as our parents put in immense efforts to prepare themselves for parties spoken of in reverent tones and we would have felt that these were among the most significant moments in their lives. There might have been repeated awed mentions of X or Y – though we might somewhere along the line have picked up that these grandees probably cared a little less about one’s parents than one’s parents cared about them. Along the way, it would have been conveyed to us just how important it was to have the right sort of ideas about politics, follow particular leisure activities, read the right sort of books and have nuanced opinions on art and music. Love was – we will have concluded unconsciously – a very conditional business indeed.

It may take a very long time to realise that any of this has gone on. A child can’t notice the peculiar introduction it is having to the world. We just know from a young age that X and Y’s summer parties are critical and that certain of our friends are very welcome in the house and others not so much.

What we can’t put a finger on is the issue itself, which is that we have grown up in an environment marked by what psychologists call ‘an external locus of evaluation,’ in other words where what is good and bad, estimable or awful, glamorous or banal is decided not in one’s own mind, according to one’s own tastes and inclinations, but in the minds of remote and powerful others, to whose value system one has essentially abdicated one’s intelligence and heart. And this has happened not because one’s parents are inherently cruel, but because they were very scared and, without knowing it, somewhat ill; and because they too originally suffered, in ways they didn’t understand, at the hands of people who did not judge them on their merits.

The Cracked Cardinal, George Condo, 2001, Wikimedia Commons

And yet what we all long for at the outset is something very different: to be allowed to be the centre of our own method of evaluation, to express our true selves, to love who seems good to us, to move away from what hurts and to say when we are fed up. We long to be in the hands of parents who are free enough to tell us: ‘What on earth does it matter what they think, listen to what counts for you.’ Or even more liberatingly: ‘Who gives a damn what they’re saying?’ It may be about the greatest inheritance to have a parent who can model an internal locus of evaluation. 

We should be generous enough to offer ourselves a diagnosis in their absence, to come to a sober reckoning: ‘I am – I can now see – the child of parents with a wound which is now mine – because it takes a very long time indeed, and huge effort, to outgrow the social fears of one’s progenitors. Without taking active measures, my parents’ ambitions are going to be my own. That is why I don’t work only hard for money but predominantly to try to impress and to belong.’ 

All this even as, inside us, there might be a fierce contrary longing: to stop listening to matters of class entirely; to meet people as equals, to let go of an absurd faith in social stratification, to work only as hard as is necessary for one’s material well-being. What an intolerable burden to have to orient one’s life around a fear of ‘falling’, to exhaust oneself with a second-hand entirely unnecessary terror of one day having to meet one’s fellow human beings on a level playing field.

It can take a very long time to realise that much of what one believes isn’t really who one is. And even longer to use this sense as a guide to one’s actions, as a goad to ceasing to try and impress types who suffer from the very same anxieties that marred our parents’ lives.

We may finally come to understand: we never had a problem with being ordinary; it was the people who nurtured us who couldn’t bear for us to be so, not because they were unkind but because they had never been granted such a luxury in their own childhoods. But their wounds need no longer be our own. Awareness offers a gateway to new, more original kinds of friendship and ambition.

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