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July 2019
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#39: Getting Jealous

by Seanan McGuire


There are lots of reasons for getting jealous, so it's probably important that we expand today's thought, and give it a little bit more context. Without context, after all, we're essentially lost in the woods. So here's today's expansion:

Envy is useful; it motivates you to work harder. Envy is toxic; the world is not innately fair. Acknowledge your envy, take a deep breath, and let it go. You're going to find yourself with a lot more room to work if you can do that, and you're going to be a much happier person.

Envy is a fascinating emotion. It's natural: everybody has it to one degree or another. It's normal: it really does happen to pretty much everyone. It's no more automatically a "bad" emotion than anger or sadness or fear, all of which happen naturally and normally and to everybody. But we're taught that envy is bad; that it has no positive sides; that if we're envious, we're somehow in the wrong, and will be punished if we're caught. So how do we deal with something that's natural and normal—and yes, unavoidable—and how do we harness its powers for good? Let's take a look at envy, why it's a good thing, why it's a bad thing, and how to use it. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Envy vs. Jealousy.

It's become common to conflate envy with jealousy, despite the fact that the two emotions are actually pretty different. Jealousy is to envy as happiness is to joy, or irritation is to rage. They're definitely related emotions—on the same part of the emotional "color wheel," as it were—but they aren't the same thing.

According to Wikipedia (source of all knowledge!), "Jealousy is an emotion and typically refers to the negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety over an anticipated loss of something that the person values, such as a relationship, friendship, or love. Jealousy often consists of a combination of emotions such as anger, sadness, and disgust." It goes on to note that infants have been seen to demonstrate jealousy as early as five months of age. Now, I think we can all agree that, outside of The Bad Seed, babies aren't evil. Babies get jealous. Jealousy serves a purpose. It isn't always a socially acceptable purpose, but it's a purpose.

Envy, on the other hand, is sort of jealousy's bigger, meaner sibling. Jealousy says "I don't want you to eat all the chocolates before I get my turn" and "I get just as much time with the dog as you do." Envy says "I wish you didn't have chocolates" and "I wish the dog didn't like you." Aristotle once defined envy as "the pain caused by the good fortune of others", and Aristotle was a pretty smart guy. We've started using the word "jealousy" to mean envy, at least in part, I think, because envy is a Deadly Sin, and who wants to say "dude, my eternal soul feels endangered by your X-Box"?

But here's the thing. If you can get jealous, you can feel envy. Babies get jealous. We've already agreed that babies aren't evil. So, for the purposes of today's definition, let's agree that envy is not, in and of itself, evil. It's what you do with it that counts. Just like everything else.

Envy is Useful.

Here's a fun fact: Bertrand Russell—who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, among other things—believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement toward democracy. Envy often hides behind the desire to level the playing field; if we didn't want what other people had, why would we care about "playing fair"? Without envy, we'd be perfectly happy to just amble around, taking care of ourselves, and never aspiring to "keep up with the Joneses," as it were. Even my cats demonstrate envy. If I pet one, I'd better be prepared to spend some time petting the other; if one of them is on the highest point of the cat tower, you can bet the other one is plotting to knock her off. The one on top jealously guards her position, while the one below attacks with envy and intent.

Envy is a powerful motivating force. If a friend of mine gets something that I want to have, it is my envy that motivates me to work harder and try to get that same thing for myself. When a friend gets something I don't want to have, like, say, a cheese steak, there is no envy to motivate me to go and get one. Envy and the "want" impulse are very closely related. The "want" impulse can even be described, and not inaccurately, as a socially acceptable form of envy. "I want that" is not the same as "I envy your possession of that," even if they describe the exact same emotional response.

Part of the trick of controlling and using envy is viewing it in a rational manner. When Alice wants the top bunk of the cat tree, she also wants Lilly not to have it. When I want another book contract, that doesn't mean I want other authors not to have their book contracts. Leaving off that second part makes a huge difference. Now, sometimes things really are super-limited commodities—there's only one top shelf on the cat tree—but those tend to be rarer than we want to think. There is more than one cookie in the world. There is more than one book contract in the world. I will eventually get my turn at the ball.

There are also times where we have to acknowledge our envy, acknowledge that we can't do anything about it, and move on. Amy has a Wii, and she's going to have friends over tonight to play with it. I can't go, because I'm in a different state, and I am envious of the people who get to spend time with my friend (and her video game console). No amount of working harder is going to give me the capacity to teleport and get there in time to join the party. I could conceivably empty my checking account to buy a last-minute plane ticket, but that would be foolish on multiple levels, and I'm not going to do it. So I'm just going to say "Wow, I envy you guys," and "Wow, I wish I could be there," and let it go.

Envy is Toxic.

The world is not an innately fair place. I didn't do anything to get uninvited from Amy's Wii party; I didn't do anything wrong. I just happened to be in a different state. That's going to happen! Sometimes people will just be in the right place at the right time, and awesome things will happen to them. They'll win prizes, or get to go to conventions, or have cuddlier cats, or pitch just the right project at just the right time and turn out to be the next Stephanie Meyer. There is no overall authority sitting at the world's control panel and making sure that the opportunities are doled out with absolute equality.

Envy becomes a problem when we start allowing that second statement to creep into things: "I want you not to have it." It often brings a cousin with it to the party, uninvited: "You don't deserve it." ("You don't deserve it" has a twin, "I deserve it more." They're jerks, and they'll eat all the onion dip, so you shouldn't invite them over if you can help it.) You know what? Sometimes people don't deserve things. Sometimes people win the lotto, or find twenty dollars in the gutter, or have perfect genetics, or whatever. It's going to happen. If you take it personally, it's going to eat you alive.

Acknowledge your envy. Look at it. Give yourself a moment to say "I am envious; I am feeling this because I have envy of _____." And then let it go. Envy is not a collector's item. You're always going to find yourself in a position to make more. All you can do is learn to tell the good kind from the bad kind, and then either slap it in harness or take it out behind the barn for a quick disposal.

In Conclusion...

Feeling envy is like farting: everyone does it, no one wants to admit it, sitcom plots get based around it, and at the end of the day, it's really not your fault.

So there.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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