My birthday was this week. Oh yes…
Which brings me to my biggest lifelong challenge: overcoming envy.
I have been watching Patrick Stewart’s “Sonnet a Day” readings on Facebook. And wouldn’t you know it? He read my favorite sonnet on my birthday: Sonnet 29.
Imagine his oaken voice reading it out:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
So what’s more pathetic than Shakespeare, green with envy, feeling sorry for himself?
Envy has stalked me for as long as I can remember. As a child, I envied my brother his friends. I envied the other girls’ for their skinny bodies and pin-straight hair. I envied my infant sister for the attention she got from my mother. As I grew up, and pushed further and further toward outsider status, these feelings strengthened. Envy turned to hate too often, especially of high school classmates with their good haircuts and expensive clothes and circles of friends, and also for anyone who was better than me at anything – sports, academics, arts.
As you can gather, I was lots of fun to be around. So that just made it all worse.
As an adult, these feelings subsided a bit – let’s say I was less consumed by them – but still I’d avoid and scorn people I envied.
Sometime in my early 40s, a change came over me. I lost weight and looked probably the best I had in my life (though I was still not 100% satisfied, of course). I had a great marriage, a great family, a great job, great community connections and great friends.
I became the envied instead of the envier. I didn’t realize this until three old friends basically said to me on separate occasions, “We started out in the same place, but look where we are now.” One friend who’d always been more fit than I suffered debilitating medical problems. Another who once had the same career trajectory as I was laid off and could not find work. The third, who’d once been my superior in business, was coping with misery at her own job and serious problems with a child.
I had no experience with being on top, and I didn’t know what to do. So I ignored it.
Soon enough, of course, my dream job turned into a nightmare. I had my own health problems, as did my husband. Some of the weight came back. We had family problems. Things piled on. And I found myself envying once again.
Perhaps “envy” is my natural resting state?
I’d periodically dig myself out of my envy pit, only to fall back in again. I got a great new job, which I chose in part because I knew it would inspire envy in those left at the old company. I sought to best others at various professional and personal endeavors, but any gloating failed to satisfy me.
Last fall, I hit envy overload. I was enraged about something that happened on social media and tried to stir up some toxic drama over it. I had a meltdown at an event because I was so stressed out and envious of others’ abilities and friendships and achievements. A friend finally scored a great new job, and I was so envious that I could not be a good friend to her. I’d get involved in competitions, only to hate people who’d bested me. I tried to lose the weight I’d gained, not for myself, but because I wanted to inspire envy in others who’d tried and failed to lose weight themselves.
And then it hit me. I was intentionally exposing myself to situations where envy would rise up in me. I wasn’t just feeling the feelings as a natural part of life. I was triggering myself. I was becoming an envy junkie.
So I sought to remove sources of envy from my life. See ya later, Instagram. Unfriending you, Facebook. Unlinking you, LinkedIn. Yeah, social media was the worst for me. But also I stepped back from work things that tended to spark envy, avoided family issues that got me going, dropped out of competitive situations, and just tried to do what I wanted for myself without regard to how others do it, or how it might look to others.
Better yet, I also tried to help others. The best way to humble yourself and feel grateful for your fortune is to give a hand up to someone who’s struggling – not because you want to lord it over them but because you have an obligation to your fellow humans to give back. This change in me has been a bumpy road, but one well worth travelling.
I have not kicked the envy habit completely – I probably never will – but I feel more attuned to those times when, as Shakespeare put it, I’d desire this one’s art or that one’s scope, or even I trouble heaven with my bootless cries. I am working at being more grateful for what I have.