Am I envious? Or is it something else?

I should enjoy my friends' success, but it just bugs me

Published September 29, 2009 7:06AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I read your column on envy a while back, and it really hit home. Envy is definitely what I have. I've thought about what you said in the column for a long time, but there's something missing. My envy is not connected to any particular deprivation, not money or children or career goals, or anything. But it is still eating me alive. What do I do?

I'll explain. I just finished a professional degree, and I am about to move to a new city. Not only will I be starting my dream job soon, but it is at a swell salary and probably insured from all the economic anxiety until at least 2011. I'm moving into a nice-enough apartment in a nice part of town, with restaurants and dog parks and ice cream shops in abundance. On the romantic front, I recently ended a three-month relationship with a guy in my old city. He was devastatingly attractive and probably not right for me in the long run, but for a while it kind of felt like magic. There will be plenty of options in my new city on that front, and I am not particularly worried about my love life right now, although I think it would be nice to be in a long-lasting relationship. In short, I have pretty much everything I've ever dreamed of or lusted after.

The problem is, every step I get closer to feeling like I have everything I want or need, the more I get jealous of others. Sometimes someone wears a new shirt, sometimes I meet someone's new boyfriend, or sometimes someone makes dinner and I am at once amazed and inflamed with envy that I didn't get there first. In some ways, I do not think that it is always negative. I have experienced depression in the past, and often my jealously reminds me that now at least I am able to feel the potential joy to be found in new experiences. The feelings also keep me motivated, and make me want to maybe try new things that I didn't think about before.

But mostly, they just make me scared. I have tried to interrogate my wants and needs to make sure I am not misstating them, but every time I do so, I pretty much settle on the same big goals. I also understand that what I am experiencing as jealousy could be insecurity, fear of abandonment, or a longing for something more meaningful than what I have now. None of the things that people traditionally seek in that situation, however, seem like something I want. (I'm not worried about having kids or volunteering more than I already do, for instance.) The envy definitely holds me back, and I can feel sometimes the smile I've worked hard to cultivate slipping into a jealous frown. So, what now?

Strangely Envious

Dear Strangely Envious,

As I said in that column you refer to, "You must find some way to recover and celebrate the intrinsic worth of your own well-being." But since I wrote that column, I have come to see such crises as not just problems to be solved but as signs of direction, or transformation, as signs of passage out of or into a new stage of life.

So when you say, "I also understand that what I am experiencing as jealousy could be insecurity, fear of abandonment, or a longing for something more meaningful than what I have now," I say, chances are, indeed, you long for something more meaningful than what you have now. So perhaps it is not envy you are experiencing so much as anticipatory grief at the sacrifice of your own authentic self. That is, you are responding to these people as mirrors of your own emerging dissatisfaction with your own life. So I suggest you treat this phenomenon as a sign that you are now called upon to begin looking for a deeper relationship with the human family, with the planet, with your own soul and your community.

Likewise, anyone reading this who feels, as you do, a discomfort with what they are supposed to find pleasure in: Look around you. Recognize that we stand at a crucial point in history. I submit to you that your discomfort with attainment of status and goods is a form of knowledge; it is a form of seeing; you are seeing what is in front of you and naturally it makes you nauseous. It should. Because in the background the planet is burning.

Your discomfort is a form of world knowledge. You are being called; you are being nudged by the world. What you feel is not envy but contempt, and what is behind the contempt is the nudging of the world; it wants something greater from you.

Is it so far-fetched to consider that all our discomfort with present conditions is in fact the world speaking to us, begging for our help?

Does planting trees feel good? Does feeding the hungry feel good? Why is that? If the world were giving us instructions, how would it do so? Is not pleasure the world's chief instrument of instruction and guidance? Is it not pleasure that the world has used to ensure procreation?

Why would it not speak to us by giving us pleasure when we do certain things and depriving us of pleasure when we do other things?

Then we ask, what feels good to do? Has your life of constant attainment and striving ceased to give you pleasure, as you see it mirrored in the striving of others? Could it be that it feels good to be of service because that is the world's wisdom, because that is what it wants of us? Yet observe how cynically we dismiss the good feelings we get from charity work or volunteering as a kind of false do-gooderism, as unworthy of us. We say that we are buying our way out of true commitment, buying our way out of guilt with this little bit of charity work, this donation, this volunteer time.

Maybe we are not buying anything. Maybe we are indeed joyfully paying -- paying as the fruit tree pays by bearing fruit, as the bird pays by singing, as the antelope pays by running.

Could it be that our feeling of worth when we do good things is genuine? Could it be that it is only with great reluctance that we steel ourselves against our better natures, in order to participate in useless, wasteful activities? Could it be that our willingness to sacrifice our need for meaningful lives is the one thing our masters most desire in us? Could that be why this quality is the thing they stress through stultifying educational programming, through empty television and media, through the utter meaninglessness of political drama, through advertising's attempts to transform us into conditioned consumers of armchairs and cold creams: that the whole system that has taken us to this point of unimaginable calamity -- the earth, our source of life, now threatened in some fundamental way -- needs to be reorganized and reoriented. And why? Because what we have arrived at is indeed an organized calamity -- not in any conspiratorial way but more in the way of the tragedy of the commons multiplied by a million, a logical clustering of individual decisions that collectively, by deracinating a million small commons, brings us to a collective tipping point?

Why is that such a strange or novel idea? Isn't it, to the contrary, more or less obvious?

I think it is obvious but hard to accept.

I know this has taken us a long way from your personal discomfort with your attitude toward your peers, but this is my suggestion: Treat your discomfort not as something to be cured or eradicated, but as a sign of your dissatisfaction with your own current life, and a sign that you are being called to a new and deeper relationship with the world.

Got stroller envy? See p. 81

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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