Envy – Mark Vernon

Envy – Mark Vernon 

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Introduction – Envy

“It consumes you from the inside like a worm in your gut. It is as strong as love, though it precipitates anger and hate. It has been described as ‘long armed’, ‘walking the streets’, and yearning to be on the other side of the fence. Its shade is green.”

We are talking about envy and its gentler cousin, jealousy. The two words can be used interchangeably, but here I want to make a distinction drawing on what has been suggested by those who have pursued this uncomfortable subject in depth. I will designate envy as malign, destructive, deadly; and jealousy as unpleasant, ugly and desirous, but also with the potential to become benign. Anyone who says they have never experienced feelings somewhere on a scale between the two – the suspicion, the covetousness, the bitterness – is probably in denial. Such raging acrimony seems part and parcel of the human condition, at least from time to time; one of the seven deadly sins, if left unchecked.

But therein lies the good news. Jealousy is not irredeemable. Catch it in time and you can learn to love, or at least like, your rival. Further, amidst the resentfulness, you might glean something crucial about yourself, concerning what you desire the most. Jealousy might be the making of you. But become locked in envy and you are in a downward spin.

The difference will provide a focus for our reflections. We will examine the dark side before seeking the light. And first, some more about the distinction.

1. The troubles of early life

One way of thinking about envy and jealousy was proposed by the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein.

“She believed that feelings describable within this range are simply and inevitably the product of being born.”

Being born means that, at first, we were radically dependent upon another. The very young infant’s life is full of powerfully felt needs – to be fed, to be held, to be comforted – and it is unable to satisfy those needs itself. Much of the time the good-enough parent can respond adequately. But not all of the time.

Klein studied the way children play, feed and draw. She spotted how they take pleasure in bashing brick towers as well as tending dolls’ houses; how they can switch almost instantly between looking daggers and smiling sweetly; how at one feed they will eat contentedly and at another spit out the mashed vegetables or apple. This mix of aggression and openness are the reflections of an inner life of emotional turmoil, she proposed, as the child rides on waves that are a mix of love and hate. Her studies pioneered the science of infant observation and, though not uncontested, have been repeated many times since.

In particular, it seems that the infant’s earliest distress, which it will inevitably feel at times, feeds a sense of jealousy and envy at the breast or bottle, the arms or face, that can help it but are not always on demand. The youngster is having its first experience of the troubling intuition that someone else possesses what I desire. Sometimes the frustration turns to rage, especially if the frustration is regularly allowed to fester. Then, the child may begin to try to spoil or destroy what it wants, or even the person who might satisfy its desires. Klein thought that these emotions are repeated when a child plays. Most mothers will have experienced such stubborn resistance, when their hungry baby refuses to take food, when their struggling baby refuses to be comforted, when their tired baby refuses to settle in the warm cot – though really it wants all of these things.

The difference between infantile and then adult jealousy and envy is one of degree and structure, Klein continues. Jealousy is an emotion that can be satisfied. The irate mood lasts for a while, but the parent can still reach their child and, with patience, sooth it.

“Jealousy also has what you might call a triangular shape. There is the mother, the baby, and the object of desire – the milk or the comfort.”

All three remain at play, even at the height of the distress, which is why a baby suffering in this way eventually takes the bottle or allows itself to be held. The mood passes. The child survives its rage.
In adult life, you can witness similar kinds of behaviour when someone is experiencing what we’re calling jealousy. Again, partly, it’s a question of intensity; partly, one of structure. Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding, provides several case studies. For example, there is Bridget’s friend Tom. He becomes jealous when he thinks Bridget is in love. Only, it seems like
a strange feeling for Tom to have because he is gay: he doesn’t want that kind of relationship with Bridget. So we can conclude it is jealousy he feels because it has this triangular shape. In the constellation, there is Bridget, Tom and the potential lover. Tom’s jealousy can lessen when he sees the joy a lover might give to his friend. What he really wants is, literally, to keep up with the Joneses – to find a lover for himself.

“Envy is different. It is more intense, refuses to be assuaged, and also has a dyadic structure, a pattern of two. With envy, life closes down, sources of comfort are ignored or refused, the envious person becomes intent only on venting his or her insatiable mood. There is a powerful sense of being locked in, obsessed, manic.”

Again, it starts young. The baby who is becoming gripped by envy is the one who won’t be comforted. To the mother it feels as if no amount of enticement will help it feed; the child screams for hour after hour after hour. (There may be physiological problems that are the cause of such distress, of course. One of my nephews cried for days until his reflux was treated. But here, we are presuming that nothing is physically wrong.) What the child has rejected is the third thing that would bring it relief. Instead, rage is hurled at the parent. You see the contraction of life to the pattern of two. There’s me and there’s the envy.

This is one of the reasons why raising such children is not only exhausting, but at times, disturbing. The depth of the difficulty of raising envious children is caught in some nursery rhymes. ‘Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.’ Notice the implicit violence, a natural response to the baby who refuses to settle in spite of the lullabies you might sing it. Down will come baby, cradle and all: sometimes, nothing short of murderous feelings are aroused in the parent, a reflection of what’s probably going on inside their charge. That is why envy, as opposed to jealousy, is a truly horrible emotion. ‘At its best, envy is a climber and a snob,’ wrote Dorothy Sayers.

“At its worst it is a destroyer -rather than have anyone happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.”

This is the way envy features in adult life, and it is much on display in Bridget Jones’s Diary too. Take the time that Bridget’s friend, Sharon, shows her envy of those who are married. She happily agrees with Sharon when Sharon calls them ‘smug, prematurely ageing, narrow-minded morons’. Sharon continues, declaring it’s been proven in surveys that all young men are unmarriageable. Then she projects her envy onto those who are married, saying that it is not she who is jealous but they are; of we ‘singletons’. The joke is that we the reader see that it is the other way round. Sharon is envious and Bridget agrees. It’s a light treatment of envy, but the lightness conceals the potential destructiveness. If Bridget really did conclude that all men are not worthy of her love, that to be married is to be a moron, then she would have ruined the thing she longs for as thoroughly as the baby who comes to hate the bottle. She would have ‘thrown her toys out of the pram’ – another saying that captures the potentially ruinous force of envy.

2. Envy’s rage and destruction

“The logic of no-holds-barred envy provokes fear too, which is why it often lies at the heart of horror films.”

Take Fatal Attraction. In the story, a contentedly married man, Dan, has a weekend affair with a woman he meets through work, Alex. Dan knows their love­making is passionate, but nothing more than a fling. He feels a bit jealous of the freedom unmarried men have to go with beautiful women, but he never loses sight of his wife and child – the triangular structure of jealousy. Alex, though, falls into envy as soon as she senses she cannot have Dan. First, she cuts her wrists when Dan says he must return to his wife and child. It seems like a cry for help, not an attempt at merciless destruction, but the story unfolds according to envy’s relentless drive, with her persistently stalking and harassing, threatening and attacking Dan.

“A climax comes in the famous scene when Alex breaks into Dan’s home to kill and boil his daughter’s pet rabbit. It seems an act close to evil.”

The tension continues to build until we glimpse the inevitable outcome: unbridled envy can only end in death. The film’s suspense rests on this fact. We know we are observing that envy is limitless. For the last half hour of the film, the only question is who and how many will die?

Envy is the source of all dark scheming and dastardly tricks in fairy tales too. Think of Snow White and her envious stepmother. And some of the best biographies understand its grip. There’s the life of Antonio Salieri, the composer and contemporary of Amadeus Mozart, told in the play, Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer.

“Salieri becomes wildly envious of Mozart when he realises that the great composer’s most casual musical jottings far surpass his very best efforts.”

Mozart’s music condemns his to obscurity. So he dedicates his life to destroying Mozart’s reputation, and damning God, whilst pretending to be Mozart’s ally. He even tries to commit suicide, having confessed to murdering Mozart with arsenic. Despised infamy is better than being forgotten. But his suicide fails and envy turns him mad at his own mediocrity. Or think of one of the most famous case studies of envy in literature, that of Othello. Shakespeare’s tale arises from a prior hatred, an example of how one vice leads to another. Iago hates Othello and wants to destroy him. He plans to convince Othello that Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is having an affair with one of Othello’s men.

“He does so in a particularly cruel way – not so much through evidence, which is implausibly fabricated, but by seeding Othello’s imagination with fantasies of the passion Desdemona and her illicit lover share.”

The poison dripped into his ear feeds a powerful envy in Othello. He dreams not of ending the affair but of entirely destroying Desdemona. ‘Damn her, lewd minx!’ he spits. ‘I will withdraw, To furnish me with some swift means of death For the fair devil.’ He tortures Desdemona, by humiliating her in public. Then he smothers her.

Terry Eagleton uses Shakespeare’s portrayal of envy to illustrate his book, On Evil. He draws out what it is like to be captured by it. ‘It converts the whole world into a terrifying state of ambiguity,’ he writes. The envious person treats everything they see and hear as material to be interpreted, and misinterpreted, to fit their perverted worldview. The innocuous becomes unbearable, hideous. The slightest sign is felt as a monstrous symbol of betrayal or loathing or torture. Lateness indicates conspiracy. A smile conceals hate. Praise is heard as patronising. The mildest request becomes a grievous insult. Communication by email implies that the other cannot bear to see you face to face. Envy’s ‘long arms’ smother everything with its deadly embrace.

What the envious person cannot see is what is plain to the eye – in Othello’s case that he is being cruelly duped, that Desdemona loves him, that his officer is innocent. As Eagleton summarises, ‘Everything appears sinisterly unreal. Nothing is but what is not.’

Incidentally, in Othello, Shakespeare makes the well­ known link between envy and the colour green. ‘It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ You know what he means: envy does seem green – an emerald-like shade, strong but sickly; vivid but infused with a deathly pallor. It’s an old association. The medical theory based upon the humours links yellow-green bile with choler or anger. In excess, this irascibility becomes envy. The ancient Greek poet of the sixth century BC, Sappho, invokes the colour too when describing her envy. She could not look at the man she loved because he was sat opposite another. She shivers.

“A dead whiteness spreads over my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat. I am greener than the greenest green grass I die.” 

3. Tolerating and spotting jealousy

“To put it all another way, there is something tremendous at stake in the difference between envy and jealousy. If the former takes hold, and won’t release you, then you are in serious trouble. So it is wise to spot the early signs, when the feeling can still be classed as jealousy, and learn to sublimate its energy towards creative, not destructive, outcomes.”

We’ll come to that transformative, happy possibility. But first we need some sense of where jealousy might lurk because though its grip is not as tight as envy, it is still hard to tolerate, and we are inclined to ignore it. It sits heavily inside, stirs our discontent and narrows our vision. It makes us feel affronted, left out. It can also reveal petty and parochial sides of our character.
‘As a jealous man, I suffer four times over,’ observed the philosopher Roland Barthes, ‘because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.’ To be forewarned is to
be forearmed.

The insights of the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, to Elizabeth 1, are useful. He witnessed much jealousy first hand, being involved in the shenanigans of sixteenth century courtly life. His observations add up to a series of reflections on when and where you might see jealousy in others, and therefore also in yourself.

One possibility revolves around the habit of being intrusively inquisitive about other people’s lives; or to put it another way, being a gossip. Gossips could harbour secret jealousy, pregnant with envy, Bacon argues. After all, if they were satisfied with their own lives, they would not obsess about the fortune and misfortune of others. Envy ‘walketh the streets’, he remarks, because it cannot rest in its own home. Can I rest in my own home, is one question to ask? Am I happy with my lot?

Another area of sensitivity is in our relationships with near equals. Cain took against Abel not because he was a stranger but because he was his brother. So obsessing about how siblings, peers or friends are doing, and how I am doing in comparison, might sound warning bells.

“Who of them damns you with faint praise? Who cannot took you in the eye? Who would stab you in the back? Who do you hesitate to praise?”

Jealousy thrives amongst near equals because of what Sigmund Freud called the ‘narcissism of small differences’. There is a cheap satisfaction to be gained by latching onto the small ways in which you feel you are superior to them. Momentarily, you can love yourself more in the glow of being a little better, a little special.

In a democracy, which celebrates the idea that all are equals, this tendency can become quite widespread. Think of the pressure amongst women to look right or possess the right body shape. We can all be beautiful, is the logic, perhaps even we all should be beautiful -the beneficiaries of which might not be women but the fashion, dieting and gym industries. The same dynamic seems to be not so uncommon amongst men too, over bonuses, or cars, or biceps. So be careful. Occasional jealousy of this kind is harmless. It may spur you to develop yourself. But if it becomes a habit, it may slip into the darkness, into envy.

Another domain to examine concerns your gifts and the gifts of others, of which you might be jealous. You might also feel your own gifts are not sufficiently recognised. This must be a type of jealousy particularly common amongst siblings. Think of the prowess in the classroom or on the sports field that makes one child shine. It also casts any brothers and sisters in the shade. I’ve observed an inverse manifestation of the same problem, when one child is described as having ‘special needs’. The implication is that any siblings don’t have special needs, and maybe no particular needs at all. A struggling child who gains extra attention can become as much a target of jealousy as the most gifted child in the school. Further, we shouldn’t rule out the same experience amongst friends.

“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” remarked Gore Vidal. 

Bacon also observed how people with new money become objects of jealousy. This is because the place of the old money in the pecking order is disturbed. Those who were on top must now share the crown or be toppled by young pretenders. There is insult to add to this injury because the further insinuation is that old success or status has become old hat. The winners of yesterday no longer know how to stay ahead. Jealousy springs up, coveting the success of today’s business heroes or celebrities. Remember the remark made by diarist Alan Clark against the businessman and politician Michael Heseltine? The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture.’ Meow.

Display makes for jealousy too. We are told that the young aristocrats of ancient Athens used to ride into the marketplace on white stallions to win begrudging admiration. Handbags and watches can do much the same today. In fact, you could argue that part of the genius of capitalism is to channel the energy of jealousy into the consumption of goods. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was the phrase coined by the economist Thorstein Veblen to capture the dynamic. It’s the reason why kids don’t just want a pair of trainers but a pair with this or that brand. It’s the reason why fashionable restaurants fall in and out of favour; why being seen at Wimbledon or Ascot is quite as important as being seen at the opera was to our forebears. Perhaps much of the time such consumer competition doesn’t do much harm and helps fire the economy.

But again, there is a darker side, as was pointed out by one of capitalism’s critics, the philosopher Ivan Illich. ‘In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.’ Another warning.

Incidentally, we should note that sometimes jealousy is not present when we think it might be. You never can tell. Take the link between love and jealousy, that can be thought an inevitability, the ‘jealous lover’ being an individual who demands their beloved feels only for them. Who has not felt it? But there is such a thing as the non-jealous lover, even if their affections are unrequited. In Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the tragic hero does not hate the man whom his beloved loves. He simply longs for Charlotte, when he sees her cutting bread and butter, slicing the cake, glancing in his direction from her carriage. He kills himself at the end because he cannot have a share in Charlotte, not because he wants revenge on her fiancé, Albert. In a way, that makes the novel all the more moving. If Werther had been jealous and become envious, his story would have mirrored that of Alex in Fatal Attraction. It would not make us cry, but tremble.

4. Showing up on your own life

In summary, we might say that opportunities for jealousy fill the day, and lurk around every corner. But there is also the upside.

“Jealousy is uncomfortable but it is also a message.”

It is sparked because of something you want but lack. Discern what you actually desire, who you really are, and not only does jealousy disperse but you can become more yourself too.

We’re moving towards the light and one way of describing the path is to consider those individuals who excel but who tend not to become objects of jealousy. There are those who are virtuous. Think of Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, the Queen. For most of us, it would seem odd to be jealous of them, and the reason is that they are admired for their selflessness. When you compare yourself with such people, it is to wonder whether you could ever care or forgive or serve as they do (assuming you don’t want to live in a castle or palace). And because their virtues arise out of a kind of emptying of themselves, you might aspire to be a little bit more like them in a way that feels freeing, not  grabbing; expansive, not destructive. Jealousy doesn’t seem to come into play.

Similarly, it seems odd to be overcome with jealousy for a Maria Sharapova or Roger Federer, for a Ranulph Fiennes or Amelia Earhart. Great sportsmen and women, as well as adventurers and explorers, have worked for their success, devoted and risked their lives. That work is obvious and clear to see. Only those who have put in as much, and failed, could be jealous. For you and I, admiration is the more natural response.

This is a clue to the benefit that some jealousy might bring us. Think again of those who do cause us jealousy. Maybe a better response to the work colleague, the gifted friend, the beautiful woman is to consider for yourself what virtue you might nurture, or what work you need to put into life. If you can turn the focus from them back onto yourself, it’s not that the jealousy instantly goes, but it is far less likely to become envy and, in time, may help you achieve or realise something in yourself that gradually neutralises the tendency to compare, to covet, to criticise.

There are roughly three steps in this move. First, jealousy forces you to think about a lack. Second, it can prompt you to discern what’s really going on for you with that sense of deficiency. Third, if you can move on from simply wanting what others want, you may discover more about what you want, and so become more yourself. The Dalai Lama caught the value of jealousy when he reflected that not getting what you want is a ‘wonderful stroke of luck’. The writer Joan Didion put it like this:

“To cure jealousy is to see it for what it is: a dissatisfaction with self.”

To put it another way, jealousy can be the prompt you need to make something of your life and stop living it through the lives of others. Showing up in your own life is remarkably hard, particularly in a world like ours that sells everything from email addresses to facial hair by raising our anxieties, our insecurities, our need to imitate. But so long as you are jealous, as opposed to envious as we’ve defined it here, there is always time to change. After all, your own life is always here for you. The present moment is the right moment. So next time you feel green, bear the feeling and think: now is a time to learn.


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