A concert, a bubble, and the status games

12th October, Berlin, 18:05, last night we watched The Rasmus perform live in Metropol Berlin, which is an impressive building with a gorgeous facade. We’ve never been in Metropol before, so we arrived early to explore the premises. Upon entry we are welcomed by an elegant old theatre with a small but cosy stage, surrounded by curvy walls, a circle of chandeliers overhead, high columns rising between two galleries, and a giant disco ball rotating on the high ceiling, sending glimmering rays of light all around the hall.

It was so strange to watch a music group I’ve been listening to since MTV times and because the members were so young when they formed the band, wikipedia says 8th grade, they don’t seem to have changed at all. I felt young again as I sang their songs aloud. The audience was mostly mature looking people, probably sharing my feelings of nostalgia. It was a fun night. I especially enjoyed their new guitarist Emppu’s contagious electric joy.

At some point in the concert, I found myself in a dreamy, introspective mood, thinking how privileged I was. Not just being in that hall, watching a wonderful live performance, but overall living in a wealthy first world country, living a luxurious enough life that can allow me to have a head space for writing. The looming shadows on the world, climate crisis, wars, economical crisis, energy crisis, food crisis, are a constant reminder of our blessings. 

Staying in that funny mood, while the music faded into the background of my mind, my eyes got fixated at the hefty columns draped in the fake fog and the ominous red light emanating from the stage, which made the hall look like Hell’s reception and, for some inexplicable reason, the exact representation of the cosy bubble I was living in. How could I, in my privileged and blessed life, still feel trapped in a thick celluloid prison? What could I want more? Was I not ashamed to want more? 

So far I can think of two reasons why I may be feeling trapped; 

The first is the feeling of “being handled”, caused by the curated content we’re presented with. It started with the advertisements, but now it’s the pictures, videos, movies, people, places. We are constantly being analysed and categorised. As a software engineer, I know how much effort is spent on this on the other side of the fence. The problem is that it’s a feedback loop, which makes us feel that we belong to a clumsy category or a stereotype. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the decisions made for us become us. It slowly grinds our edges, hence the bubble.

The second reason is feeling absolutely mediocre. I feel like in the absolute middle, in the perfect centre in every measure I compare, every race I compete. I’m not losing or winning in any category. In every direction I feel surrounded by millions of people, thus the bubble.

But, why do I think I should compete at all? In a society that favours equality and strives to provide a minimum living standard, just like here in beloved Germany, where mediocrity is actually celebrated, and where I’m so grateful living in, why am I driven to stand out? What is the source of this mixture of appreciation and consternation?

Is it the constant status games we play? Can’t we turn it off? 

The first time I read about status games so explicitly described was in the book “Impro”, written by the pioneer of improvisational theatre Keith Johnstone. He explains the technique of understanding and using the power differences in any given situation, say in a master and his butler, or a queen and her fool. The statuses are communicated through body language and the inflection of the voice. He says, “once the status becomes automatic, as it is in life, it’s possible to improvise complex scenes with no preparation at all”.

Here are some insightful highlights from the book;

  • Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together.
  • When a very high-status person is wiped out, everyone feels pleasure as they experience the feeling of moving up a step. This is why tragedy has always been concerned with kings and princes,
  • In my view the two people scan each other for signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think they’re equal, both move aside, but the position nearest the wall is actually the strongest. If each person believes himself to be dominant a very curious thing happens. They approach until they stop face to face, and do a sideways dance. 
  • Servants’ costumes are usually rather tight so that their bodies take up a minimum of space. Other things being equal, the servant should be near a door so that he can be instantly dismissed without having to walk round the master.
  • breaking eye contact can be high status so long as you don’t immediately glance back for a fraction of a second. If you ignore someone your status rises, if you feel impelled to look back then it falls.
  • The corners of couches are usually high-status, and high-status ‘winners’ are allowed to take them.

I don’t know how to stop playing the status game, but at least I wish to control its influence over my happiness. While having all these thoughts today I came across this beautiful poem;

By Rumi

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there. 

When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other
doesn’t make any sense.

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