Tag Archives: Jealousy

There’s No Castle in My Room: I’m not Jealous, I’m Envious

31 Dec


  “In America, happiness is making $10 more a week than your brother-in-law.”

                                                                                                    H.L.  Mencken  

My son-in law, Jeff recently got a new computer. This, of course, means that I now have to upgrade mine. Regardless of  expense, or the features that I might actually need, my mantra when it comes to such things is simply that it must be “Better than Jeff’s”  (BTJ).  I don’t really care what I get, or how it works,  just  so long as it is BTJ.

 Such competitive envy is sometimes considered to be the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. It’s  certainly the most pervasive. In his 2003 book entitled  Envy,  former editor of  The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, explains that sins like anger, sloth, gluttony, pride, and lust  usually have at least some modicum of pleasure attached to  them, but envy is entirely  “mean-spirited” and almost  always has malice behind it. When it spins out of control,  it  leads  to other antisocial behavior,  such as theft, fraud, and even murder. In Genesis, Cain’s murder of Abel is secondary to his original sin of intolerable envy.

My wife Diane claims that I’m quite the  jealous person. For example,  if she orders  something at a restaurant that  looks good,  I automatically covet  it. If she buys a new book, I want a new book. Actually  this is envy, rather than jealousy, because in such cases I   want another person’s possessions.  Jealousy is when you already have something, but are distressed about the possibility of losing it to a rival.  Envy involves two people and is  accompanied  by feelings of inferiority, longing, and resentment, while  jealousy typically involves three people,  and is characterized by  distrust, anxiety, and anger.

I would  point out this distinction to Diane,  but I’m not sure  she would appreciate it and might conclude, as Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut put it,  that I’m “ somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut.”  In the larger sense,  Diane  is still technically correct,  since I’m often  jealous, as well as envious,  a rather dubious distinction.

           In many respects contemporary culture cultivates envy.  Epstein has written  that the American advertising industry is a “vast and intricate envy-creating machine.”  The 1980s  “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” advertising campaign by Pantene,  is perhaps the most overt example  of envy-based advertising,   Modern marketing aims at convincing people to compare their situation with that of others,  opening wide the  door to envy.           
           Envy and jealousy are among the first complex  emotions that children display and infants and  toddlers  show their jealousy in both regressive and aggressive behavior.   

Children  cannot take on other’s viewpoints  and have a very difficult time developing the ability to share gracefully. I remember one Christmas when our youngest granddaughter received  a fabulous pink play castle, which irked her older sister  to no end. When they moved the castle from under the Christmas tree to the younger girl’s bedroom, our oldest granddaughter could be heard walking around the house muttering, in  an exasperated  fashion, “I don’t see a castle in my bedroom!”   

             The German philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote  “Because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy.”   Frequently we tend to be so  envious, we can hardly bear the pleasure of others. People are often willing to sacrifice a great deal, rather than see someone else gain even a little.  A Russian folktale describes how  God  appeared to Ivan and told him  that he would grant him anything he wished.  However, there was one catch,  whatever he did for Ivan,  he would  do  double for Ivan’s despised  neighbor and rival,  Vladimir.  Ivan  brooded over this and finally asked God  to put out one of his eyes.

              Those tabloid newspapers at the grocery checkout, that emphasize the travails of celebrities, allow  us to  make favorable comparisons with the  beautiful  people,  so that we appear to be doing better than them,  in at least in some areas of life.  Epstein says we should call such  publications,  The National Schadenfreude, after the German word for taking pleasure in the pain of others.
        If there is an  upside to  envy,  it  is that it  occasionally  serves as  a catalyst for us to accomplish more and lead better lives.   

Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., author of I’d Change My Life If I Had More Time  says,  “When you realize you are capable of achieving what the other person has, envy can motivate.  Envy can be either a tool for destruction or a great gift.”   The  Greek philosopher  Aristotle described what he called “emulative envy”, which drives  us to imitate  the noble, the good, and the  just in other people.

            Envy strikes those aspects of our lives, in which we feel  most challenged and those that are most important to us. Competition and  pride are key factors. Freud wrote that envy is essentially  a “narcissistic wound”— a  major  threat to our self-esteem.

          Envy is also bound up with the childish notion that things always have to be fair. At Diane’s recent birthday celebration, that included four young grandchildren, there was nonstop squabbling and complaining about the size of the pieces of birthday cake. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s fair that children should always get the biggest pieces.   To reduce the likelihood of  envy among siblings,  parents often go to great pains to try to keep everything equal. Back in Florida Diane did groups with emotionally handicapped children in  public schools. When she used snacks for rewards,  she was always extremely careful to assure that each treat bag contain exactly the same amount, because even a single microgram difference had the potential to set off a major incident.

          Novelist Bonita Friedman has called envy,  ‘the writer’s disease’.  When writers read anything good,  they invariably think, “What’s the big deal, I could have done that myself.”, sort of the way your dog looks at you, when you’re driving the car.   Friedman bravely  admits  to going  into bookstores and immediately flipping to the  back of best sellers,  just to compare ages with   the author. Some people read obituaries just to make similar comparisons.  I’m reaching  that age when you start  thinking  about how nice it would be to  outlive,  rather than out-achieve your rivals, since that seems easier.  

Once I was looking at books at a supermarket and  sudenly  there was a picture of someone I knew. As if this wasn’t bad enough, several months later I saw her on a television show. All this  left me muttering,  “Where the heck is  the castle in my room?”