Venus envy

In the last week, I have been on an envy spree, thanks to: some young man blithely plowing through a cheeseburger and mountain of fries (just wait twenty years, fella); a woman pushing a pristine cast-iron casserole in her thrift-shop cart (why didn't I see that?); the neighbour receiving her weekly impressive bouquet (the expense!); and the friend sending a colour commentary on the inaugural ball of a Latin American president (oh, to be that close to history!).

And that is not even counting Instagram, where perfect (pun intended) strangers paddle in Tanzania or cavort on Maui. I always feel a surge of envy when I see travel shots. For forty-five seconds, I feel a little pokey and stuck, and definitely adventure-deficient.

A teacher, the late Angles Arrien, advised us to view others' good fortune as a gift to both of us, and therefore, to turn our attention to our own wishes, dreams, possibilities, even fantasies. She proposed what some Buddhists call "loving envy", a far more useful consciousness than that of curdled resentment: a benevolent acceptance, even if we cannot always muster wholehearted joy.

Loving envy opens us to life's vastness, beauty, magnificence. When I go to that place, I feel much better, freed of corrosive want. But then there are pearls.

Alice, owner of the restyled Tahitian pearl necklace, visited recently. Over coffee, she put the piece in my hands. Immediately, Alice and the café fell away. The pearls and I were alone together: shimmering cherry and pistachio Tahitians and all the interesting new bits: crystal, keshis, freshwaters. Her voice broke my reverie. She said, "What are you thinking?" I answered instantly: "I want them!" Alice heard this as it was meant, a heartfelt appreciation.

I had not ducked longing. Later, at home, I took out my pearls and contemplated a similar reno. Will I do it? Who knows? But I learned from that, too. The toughest envy to surmount is when you have a good shot at achieving a similar experience, but it is presently out of reach.

My university roommate's younger sister, Anita, would agree. After her friend A. was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the well-known "Genius Grant"; Anita could not bear to visit her.

Her envy felt like The Alien had sprung from her belly; the intensity shocked and shamed her. It shrieked within continually, I was that good; I was better. How did they know about her and not me? (The nominees are submitted by an anonymous committee, not by application.)

Anita had lunch with her former manager, which she initiated hoping to hear affirmation that she could have won the Fellowship. But she did not get that; he asked only if Anita thought the Foundation's process was fair. The man's refusal to staunch Anita's wound was as biting as hydrogen peroxide on a fresh cut, and as important, because Anita was infected with envy.

She realized that her resentment had poisoned—and could well end—the cherished friendship. She re-read her own accolades and congratulatory notes and placed them in a dedicated box. "Is that enough?" I asked. "Not quite, she said, smiling, "but it's what I have." She added, "A financially freeing, magnificently prestigious grant: that was always my dream—not that I would surpass her. "

Anita called her envy of an exceptional woman, Venus Envy.

Envy need not be proportionate to achievement; it only takes the Instagrammed tray of macarons posted by a friend during her pastry class in Paris to stir the twinge of Why Not Me?

Envy is so often self-judgement in disguise: I'm lazy, talentless, clumsy. This is a subset, Silly Envy. In my right mind, I know I can't be, do, see everything. What the younger generation calls FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is for me called Reality.

The antidote to Silly Envy is to act; even the tiniest positive action assuages the sulky, pecking voice. Because it is very silly, isn't it, envying somebody's cookie—even if it's Paris?

And if I think my longing is indeed significant, I can rouse myself, put on some Patricia Kaas to get in the mood, and make macarons. Who cares if they list a little?


Jane M. said…
Wonderful post. I enjoyed this article for the enlightenment with my own experience with envy for others successes.

BTW: I baked the oatmeal cookies from the recipe that you included in a post a couple of months ago and they are excellent! Thanks to you and your husband for sharing the recipe.

Best, Jane
LauraH said…
Haven't I read that the culture of Instagram is designed to provoke envy? Something along those lines. So easy to believe, even if for only a few minutes, that the life being presented is so much more glamorous, wonderful than our own. I've had those feelings too, wishing I could afford to travel as much as I like, whenever I want, as some friends are able to do. But then they have other difficulties that I wouldn't want. Luckily I was never ambitious for my career so that envy passed me by. My deepest envy comes up when I see an older couple doing something in a harmonious and loving way together. That can be bitter and I still struggle with it.
Mardel said…
What a wonderful and brave post. We all fall into these pits, and our inner critics are so ready to jump in and add to our distress. But we are often reluctant to admit our frustrations as well. Thank you,
This is a beautiful piece.
royleen said…
OMG, what a nice reminder of Angeles’ wisdom. I was able to take several classes with her when we lived in the SF Bay Area. This was a lovely post. I have struggled w envy in the past and Angeles’ teachings helped me so much. Thanks for bringing me some special memories today.
Chris Penglase said…
Love this post. Beautifully and intelligently written.
Duchesse said…
Royleen: She was a remarkable woman and teacher, whom I still mourn.
sensitive poet said…
Ah yes, envy, that most human but also most corrosive of emotions. Human, because it is only natural to be jealous of what others have, and we do not. However, I am convinced that if we only look deeper, things are not always what they seem to be.
That is because we may not, in that instant of jealousy, be looking at the broader picture. What do we have- that we fail to count as precious and irreplaceable - good health, a good mind and maybe some talents (even if they are not world-shattering), maybe a loving partner or family or friends, parents and family who loved us...These are not glittering prizes, but the evidence is they are much more predictive of long term happiness and fulfilment. We do not know what the future will bring to us and to them.
The jealousy could be the sign that something is not quite right with us, that perhaps we need to reconsider what we are doing, how we are doing it, and who we are doing it with.
Maybe we can say to ourselves - that award is right for our friend, at that time in their life. But we are different, and we have unique gifts to contribute.
Friendship is a great gift, and to jeopardize it is a terrible mistake - better to focus on what this friend has already brought into your life (before the award) and what you can bring to this friendship in the future.
(One of life's hard won lessons)
Susan B said…
Thoughts on envy in a moment, but first let me say that gorgeous necklace prompted me to take a browse at Kojima...and well, I may have bought myself a little Mothers' Day present... ;-)

Back in the 80's, my dad and his wife were very into the "self-actualization" movement. They took me to a few seminars and while I thought a lot of it was a bit "woo woo", I did pick up a few nuggets that have served me well over the years. One is that if you resent other people for having something you want, it throws up roadblocks to ever having that yourself (or recognizing something even better for you). Envy is OK, if you can pivot and say to yourself, "cool! I want that too!" If nothing else, it helps diffuse any resentment and hard feelings. I'm grateful to have learned this early-ish in life.
I confess that the morning I read this post, I had a twinge of "I hate my throat". (Ephron says neck, but I suspect she means the throat). Magnifying mirror. (Wanted) weight loss, though I have put on a bit of a pot after this last horrible winter, between icy terror and a pivot friend slowly dying) and have been cycling again to smooth it out and generally feel myself again. So vain and silly, though I think we all have moments of not recognising the person in the mirror. Fortunately that day I was interpreting at a conference on Environmental protection and Indigenous I could forget my pesky inner airhead.
Duchesse said…
sensitive poet: Thank you for your expansive view. If consumed by envy, your suggestion to count one's blessings (which is what A. did when she re-read all her citations and fan mail) is like first aid: immediate and staunches the blood. My Dad (a homespun philosopher) said, "There will always be someone who has more than you, and someone who has less. Help those with less and don't begrudge those with more."

Susan B: My new mantra: "Cool, I want that too!" So refreshingly honest and human.

lagatta: Um, I think that's vanity—unless you are looking at the neck of say, Keira Knightly ;) But I see how the vanity and envy are linked, how one feeds the other. I too feel lethargic after the restricted movement of last winter.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I think Nora Ephron, who had very precise control operating behind that breezy tone, meant neck, because... jowls.
Duchesse said…
Susan B: Happy Mother's Day, you lucky woman... Duchesse said with fond envy.

LauraH: That which we truly prize is a lightening rod for envy. How keenly we can envy someone in the midst of a life experience do not presently have, or never had but hoped for. We may also have wishes, longings—and those usuallly burble away stay at that less painful level— but envy comes in when we see that someone else has it, and we don't.
Yes, Ephron is a very precise writer. I suppose my nasty part is a bit farther down the throat. Yes, vanity (while recognising how silly that is) but also a certain loss of self while ageing hits. I have the bicycle out, which counters the lethargy.

Duchesse said…
lagatta: Vanity is not one of the deadly sins; take heart. I will say more later. Biking in spring is such a pleasure! My Captcha image is... bicycles.
Madame Là-bas said…
I think you nailed it with "self-judgement in disguise". I don't think that vanity and envy are the same. I wish I not the same either. I wish I had grandchildren but I enjoy seeing or hearing about others' grandchildren. A deficit has encouraged me to substitute teach to experience children in my older years. Envy often, I think, can be a wakeup call to action. Action then raises self-worth and drives out the negative emotion. You are writing some very interesting blogs these days.
Duchesse said…
Mme Là-bas: One definition of envy is "a a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck." So I agree it is not just wishing, there is an element of negative feeling towards those who have what one does not. That bitter jealousy—not the wishing or longing—is what makes it such a miserable way to live.

Thank you for finding this topic interesting!
Laura J said…
Excellent post and preceding comments as well. Sometimes viewing what others have as though in a galley or museum is helpful-/one can admire, acknowledge wanting something but then just say oh yes it is there and I am here and just move on. I find your life comments so helpful and pertinent. Thank
Duchesse said…
Laura J: Today was the first really warm, sunny day here, and by noon people shed their coats; I even saw tank tops. So, an occasion to envy girls whose thighs are as smooth as typing paper (do they still call it “ typing”?) . It is there and I am here! Thanks.

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