My husband is in the studio playing old tapes he has of a singer he produced back in the late 80s. It’s not me. It’s someone else. She is much younger than me, taller, blonde, striking, charismatic, with God-given pipes that can soar and dive and break your heart. She is utterly original, and (this is the part that really hurts): She is successful.
I can’t help it. When I hear her voice, I feel that old green-eyed monster coming back to visit me. Envy. I have fought with this devil all my life, with varying degrees of success. “Someone else will always be smarter, prettier, more talented . . .” said my father. He was right. I can’t possibly compete. Why try? I can only be me.
I have long been aware that it is not a good or productive thing to envy anyone. If we all hung out our problems on a clothesline and were allowed to choose, we would all choose our own in the end. I’m sure that I wouldn’t want this woman’s life, and I doubt she would want mine. If only feelings were logical.
The Germans have a word, “Schadenfreude”. As I understand it, it means taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It is an ugly wart on the nose of the human condition. I can’t help it, though. Sometimes people like the vocalist whose voice is blasting through our living room make me wish they would slip on the proverbial banana peel. Then I immediately feel ashamed.
This is only the most recent example of my green streak. When I was a little kid in school there were twins in my class that were always showing me (in stereo) how miserably I had failed. They never got their clean, starched white-collared dresses dirty. They always wore the “right” clothes. They got straight A’s every time. Their mother was one of those Betty Crocker types who made beautiful, well-organized lunches for them. They were shoe-ins for class president when we all reached high school. They were wonderful girls. I respected and admired them. Oh, let’s face it: I also hated them with a passion.
I generally have managed to avoid envying people I have never met. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to work up a good envy for movie stars or politicians or sports heroes. It’s like they’re just living in another galaxy. They’re not real to me, so they don’t matter, in some strange way.
Maybe, though, the first real step in defeating the green-eyed monster is accepting its existence. This creature has been with me all my life and doesn’t seem willing to disappear. What can he teach me?
Maybe compassion. After all, there must be lots of people in the world who would like to have some of the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. There is nothing happy or comfortable about being envious. It is a sad little pity pot to be in. It makes your happiness shrink and shrivel. It makes you think your life is somehow less important than that thing out there (whatever it is) that you think you want/need/can’t live without.
Inevitably, just when I think I have been gypped in the Lotto of Life, it turns out that the object of my envy has some awful setback. This usually jolts me back to reality.
So I don’t have her looks, her pipes, her talent, or her success. I have my own. I have a great life, and I wouldn’t trade. Not for anything.
© 2004, Robin Munson