The above photo shows the now-ruined 24-room Victorian-era mansion built by Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley which is believed to have inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”
By the mid-20th century, keeping up with the Joneses meant more than just a bigger and better house. Once considered wasted space, a large, well-manicured lawn became a status symbol – reflective, perhaps, of your being in a position to waste that space, rather than grow food on it for your family to eat.
You had to have the latest and greatest labor-saving appliances, the best and newest car. In other words, you demonstrated status by out-consuming your peers.
We still do. Today, local housing associations mandate large, well-maintained lawns in their bylaws. Miami Shores, Florida, banned vegetable gardens in residential front yards in 2013.
And with social media, we have not only the ability to instantly post photos illustrating our high-status consumption as we now try to keep up, not with the Joneses but with the Kardashians, but we have another avenue of status-seeking. Who does the most and the loudest virtue-signaling? How stridently do you denounce (insert preferred target here)?
The urge behind this race to demonstrate greater status than your peers is readily seen in the animal kingdom, and, indeed, in our own history as a species, with males seeking to show domination of other males to appear as desirable mates for the perceived best of the females. This, in turn, ensured the more desirable males’ genes were passed to the next generation, along with those choice female genes.
But we don’t live in the animal kingdom, nor in the cave-dwelling days of our distant ancestors. We don’t (usually) fight over choice of mates. We don’t survive merely by natural selection.
We are not just animals – we are human beings in the 21st century, and we have choices – as well as perceptions and sensibilities – animals don’t, and our ancestors didn’t, have.
We can be better than this. And it’s in our best interest to be better. There will always be someone with a newer, shinier whatever-it-is than yours. Let’s be reminded by the above picture – what is “best” today never stays that way. Envy is corrosive, and chasing after an illusion is always a losing game.
So, let’s not play that game. Instead of squabbling over who has the best baseball bat, let’s just play a ballgame. Together. And by the rules.
It’s much more rewarding to earn others’ trust than their envy. And it is also more rewarding to allow others to gain your trust than envying them any good fortune that has come their way.
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Until next Wednesday –