I didn’t know I was putting everyone above me until a friend pointed it out one day when we were in our mid-20s. Having just moved to a new state after living in the same place for 17 years, I was feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped to deal with my new life. Having been removed from the city of my birth and transplanted 1,500 miles away, I was awakening to some new ideas and understandings about myself. Namely, that the way I’d been doing things wasn’t working, and I needed a change. But what that would look like was beyond me, until Jenn matter-of-factly told me I’d been putting everyone up on pedestals and that’s why nothing was working. Oh.
Wait, what exactly did that mean? Jenn patiently explained that on the spiritual plain, everyone is equal. In this world we may all have different roles, and our lives may look profoundly different and unequal, but in terms of each individual’s value and worth–equal. Well, I knew that wasn’t true. My bosses were above me, and my parents, and anyone with better clothes, or a fancy car, or more money. Celebrities for sure. Yet given my anti-authoritarian streak, I resented greatly anyone I viewed as better than me, because they had power I did not. Jenn pressed–and who accords them such power? I kept trying to explain. Money. Title. Experience. Role. She shook her head firmly at each of my attempts to name who belonged on a pedestal and how they got there. Until you see that it’s you placing them there, and that the pedestal is an illusion, I’m afraid you’re going to be stuck, she finally said.
I could not wrap my head around it. For one, I wasn’t doing anything on a spiritual plain, confirmed atheist as I was. Second, some people were just more important and better than me, and that’s the way it was. It was comfortable (in that very cold way of the routine) for me to be ever gazing upward, resenting who I found there, mired in the muck of my own self-inflicted unworthiness. It wasn’t working for me.
Recently a friend told me she’s put herself on a pedestal, as a way to keep herself apart from what she sees as the chaos of being human. She described a life lived in a place of remove–looking down upon, or watching over the struggle below, depending on how judgmental she was feeling any given day. From her perch, she believed she could see all, predict all, and most importantly, stay pristine above the fray. It wasn’t working for her.
While I can’t get behind the religious ideal that we were all made in a certain image, and are therefore equal in certain eyes, I can understand, if I try really hard, that we are all equal. And I don’t mean equal in any sense other than we were all born and we will all die. These two truths raze the pedestals and put us in a single milieu. No one is better, because in the grand scheme of things, none of us are certain. Why waste time jockeying for position or holding yourself apart?
Oh. This is what Jenn was trying to tell me ten years ago. Our sanity and relationships with others depend on us approaching from this level, eye-to-eye.
When I placed myself below others, I lived in a near-constant state of intense self-criticism, which often boiled over into jealous rage. I would have an interaction with someone, anyone and spend the rest of the day playing it over and over in my head, looking for ways I had fucked up or said something inappropriate. Because I believed that everyone was more important than I, it was paramount that I behave perfectly around others at all times, in all situations. I was never to make a misstep either real or perceived. I castigated myself mercilessly for all (real or perceived) infractions. On occasion, the toxic waste I was creating inside myself spilled out and I hated everyone. People sucked and I hated them. I burned with anger about how they made me feel inferior and who did they think they were anyway? I felt apart and isolated.
What I didn’t understand is that by living in this state of inequality, I was creating the situation leading to my anger, sense of inadequacy and separation. Invariably, when we put someone on high, they will show themselves to be a person with flaws, just like us, and if we’ve been idealizing them, we will be disappointed. In my case, to the point of disgust. Which leads to doubt about my ability to make good decisions about who to idolize which leads to further self-criticism, and the cycle repeats.
I started working on a new understanding based in the idea that we’re on a level field, as sentient beings. We must treat each other as peers, and ourselves as people. For me, it started with letting the mental replays of interactions go. I stopped recording and tried just being. During a conversation, instead of frantically searching for the right thing to say to this person so far above me, I listened more and said less. I forced myself to see that every person who crosses my path is a walking, talking bundle of their own anxieties, problems, and joys. Who was I to decide where I belonged in the order?
We are each the centers of our own worlds, whether we see ourselves positively or not. We just aren’t as important to everyone around us as we might feel. Before you allow this to depress you, think of how freeing it can be! We are all equal in our struggles (though they may look different from each other) and our pain and our insecurities and our need. We are all heading to the same final fate. This we know for certain, even if we decline to dwell on it.
I’ve not mastered this, not by any means. It’s a way I practice, and the opportunities to do so are endless. Every moment, every interaction. This person is just like me. And it’s worth doing, because it’s been a very long time since I’ve said or felt that people suck and I hate them. In fact, a love for the vulnerability that is humanity has opened deep inside, and it’s inevitable that it will flow out on to me.