We periodically hear the phrase about knowing one’s place. It’s a phrase out of the past, with some history attached to it. It seems we don’t hear it as much nowadays as we did a few decades ago.
What does it mean, to say that one knows his or her place—or doesn’t? It seems to have two meanings. One meaning is rather complimentary. Its significance is that a person is comfortable with his/her place in society, or in life in general, and has no pretensions or desires for moving out of it to another place. That is to say, it suggests one is satisfied with one’s position in society, and has no ambition to improve or better it. Such a person is not anxious about social standing, and does not transmit a message of dissatisfaction with the hand that has been dealt him or her. It’s a phrase one is pleased to have applied to him- or her-self.
But there’s another meaning to the phrase, that makes of it a kind of “put-down” or criticism. It is leveled against someone who appears pushy or “uppity”, anxious to make a good impression on others, and desirous of getting ahead or improving one’s place in society. Such a person appears to be dissatisfied with the way his or her life is going, and wants to introduce some changes into it. And there can be some validity to such dissatisfaction. But it is not a description most of us would like to have applied to ourselves.
A person who knows and accepts his or her place in society is usually a contented person, and may give the impression of having no ambition or desire to improve things. This may be true, and for good reason. For instance, such a one may have achieved what he or she set out to do in life, and has no other goals ahead that beckon or challenge one. This would seem to constitute happiness or at least contentment. Goals have been met, so ambition has died out. However, there can be a downside with such a situation. For the role of desire in our human psyche is a prominent part of our life experience. To have all major desires satisfied and fulfilled suggests either that they were not challenging and were rather easily achieved, or that we aggressively pursued them successfully, regardless of the effort involved. As a result, our life has lost its drive and momentum, and we’re gliding along (drifting?) rather comfortably. Some retired people, who eagerly anticipated retirement after hectic years earning a living or raising a family, find that, after a period of time, retirement does not prove to be what it promised to be. Time begins to weigh heavily on their hands, and memories of a busy life, now left behind, prove nostalgic. If this is the bliss of eternity, they may reflect, then it is not an attractive one.
The person, on the other hand, who is restless and full of ambition, often frets over lost or wasted opportunities at achieving upward mobility or self-improvement, and is usually not content with successes already achieved, even though they may be significant. It is good to have a person such as this in a position of influence in an organization. He or she is equipped for a leadership position. But when such a person shows little indication of scoring successes in life, people are less prone to “tolerate” his/her ambition and tend to resist or obstruct their efforts. Critics complain that such a one doesn’t know his/her place in life, and ought to rest content with where one has reached. But often, such a one is not ready to give up, and determinedly pushes on, even into the retirement years.
So, knowing one’s place in life can be a double-edged sword. In a positive sense, it represents success in having carved out a successful position for oneself, thereby proving acceptable both to others and to oneself. Paul the apostle exemplified this attitude in detailing his pedigree and achievements before the opposition of those seeking to oppose his efforts at evangelizing. (2 Cor 11.21-29)
But, in a negative sense, it can imply a “put-down” on one’s life on the part of others who are critical of what they regard as unbridled ambition, at others’ expense. This is illustrated in the gospel incident of James and John using the influence of their mother to score advancement in the kingdom of God, to the chagrin and anger of the other apostles (Mt 20.20-28)
So “knowing one’s place in life” is a double-edged sword, cutting both ways. Too much of it can be as detrimental to our well-being, as too little.