Envy: spoiled grapes

There was a time I collected heroes, like people collect stamps or porcelain figurines or coins or guns.

I collected heroes to shore up a sense of myself as someone attached to someone else, someone who might make up for my shortcomings.

Not that I thought about it like this at the time. At the time, I always imagined that by attaching to this person I might better myself by association.

I went once to hear a talk from a prominent Melbourne psychoanalyst – not one of my heroes, but esteemed by many – who was speaking on the topic of envy. As he spoke, I recognised something in his tone that hinted at contempt for his audience, we the people seated before him on hard backed vinyl chairs in an over air-conditioned room that made us want to huddle our coats closer.

Was it only me who smarted at the sense he was mocking us, not only his audience but more especially the people who went to see him for help, those whom he talked about as case examples?

A woman who had approached him to deal with her anxiety. A woman whom he considered could have helped herself more.

A woman, who wanted him, her analyst, ‘to wipe her bum’.

He said those words through tight teeth as though he thought this woman was not worthy of his time.

‘We only wipe the bottoms of very small children,’ he said. ‘At a certain age you need to start wiping your own.’

How the issue of wiping bums relates to the notion of envy, I cannot recall, but his talk left me cold.

This analyst has since been discredited for sexual boundary violations, and he has moved out of the glare and into the shadows.

This is what happens to some of my heroes.

Others, like Gerald Murnane glow more brightly than ever. And the writer Helen Garner, both are writers whom I have followed, held firm to their almost every written word, admired them from afar, but now as I age, am I falling victim to that most ghastly of sins, the sin of envy?

Now as I become more critical of my heroes, am I simply jealous, or worse still envious?

Envy is worth thinking about because it is insidious. Envy, unlike jealously, cannot acknowledge admiration for another person.

When you’re jealous of someone, you know it. You feel it in your bones.

I wish I could sing like her. I wish I could write like him. I wish I lived in a house like that. I’m jealous of my brother who is ten times wealthier than me.

Even as I tell myself these things do not matter and I’m good enough as I am, I can still feel the purple pain of jealousy.

I try to handle it by acknowledging this feeling, to myself at least.

You’re just jealous and why not? What, he or she has done is marvellous. Anyone would feel a hint of jealousy alongside their own paltry efforts.

But envy, now that’s something else again. When you’re envious of someone or something, you can’t admit to yourself that you wish it was yours or that you admire what someone else has or can do.

When you’re envious of someone, your impulse is to put them down, to belittle them, to decry their value.

When you’re envious you can’t even let yourself know that there’s something that you want.

It’s rather like that fox and those grapes that were out of reach.

The fox saw the lush purple grapes hanging high overhead and he wanted them. He tried again and again to reach them and when finally, out of breath, he realised those grapes were beyond his reach, he told himself they were bitter anyhow.

Beware of envy. It spoils things.

It spoils things for the person envied and for the one doing the envying.

It spoils things for everyone.

Be jealous, by all means. In many ways it’s a compliment to those whom you admire, but be wary of the hidden charge of envy, it can ruin everything.



8 thoughts on “Envy: spoiled grapes”

  1. I don’t think of myself as an envious person. Or jealous. Most people treat the terms as interchangeable but I’ve always thought of envy as that bit nastier than jealousy. I mean I have been disappointed when others have succeeded and I haven’t. But I didn’t wish they’d fall and break their neck or anything so I could step into their shoes. I wonder if envy and ambition are related. Because I’ve never been ambitious. My life can be broken down to half a dozen sections where I had to start again pretty much from scratch. So I never got anywhere careerwise. Other than the first or second rung of the ladder. And I’ve mostly been fine with that. A while ago I decided to look up everyone I could think of from school to see where they were now and most of them hadn’t made much of their lives but my best friend had ended up running a major airport. Was I jealous of him? No, not in the least. Tom was driven by one thing: to best his father at everything. And he managed that. I mean his reasons are textbook stuff and I’m not sure his father would see his son’s competitiveness as a bad thing but I do wonder how much true satisfaction Tom got in the end. I suppose I was pleased for him but what held me back from being overjoyed was a lack of understanding. Had he become a successful novelist I would’ve understood even if he’d become one for all the wrong reasons.

    When I think of envy I think of wanting to replace the person we’re envious of. Why them and not me? In writerly terms the person I most often compare myself to is Jeanette Winterson. She was born in August 1959. I was born the previous May. So, for all intents and purposes, we’re the same age. She grew up in a working class environment and in an oppressively religious household. And here we both are, forty-odd years later, poles apart. And yet I’m not resentful. I’m only disappointed in myself. I didn’t believe in myself enough to make the break and I never truly did until my father died and I was in my later thirties. Not too late to make a start and I did but other things held me back and continue do. I’m never going to be Jeanette Winterson but I’m pleased someone was. I met her once at a book-signing and she was lovely. Made a muck of signing my copy of ‘Lighthousekeeping’ and everything. I told her, “You’re one of the most articulate people I’ve ever known,” which made her blush if only on the inside. She’s not a hero though. I’m not sure I have any of those.

    There are writers whose work I admire—Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin and Richard Brautigan—but the more I’ve learned about them as individuals the more I wish I never knew. I tend to steer clear of biographies these days. Let the work stand on its own. There’s been a fair bit of talk of late about the dividing line between an artist and his work. We’ve talked about this before. Even liars are capable of telling the truth and so-called “bad” people have surprised the world by acts of genuine kindness or charity. No one’s all anything. Not even all writer as much as I’d love to be.

    I’m pleased to see Murnane’s got a book of short fiction out. I’ve still to read ‘Border Districts.’ I’ve not been putting it off. I’ve been saving it. I did that with Brautigan. Knowing I had only four and then three and then two and finally only one novel left to read I did find myself dragging my heels. I didn’t want to be done.

    1. From the little I’ve seen of Jeanette Winterson in the virtual world, Jim, I agree with you, she’s lovely. As is her writing. Fame is a funny thing. I suspect it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it’s like the stuff of being in a relationship. those in relationships can sometimes feel oppressed in the and those outside of a solid relationship long for one. there’s good and bad to both. Likewise with being famous. Anyhow, I get the sense you understand my distinction between envy and jealousy. Thanks Jim.

  2. I’m currently seeing a psychologist. Fortunately, he’s a nice guy. If he ever showed any contempt for me, I’d drop him like a rabid hedgehog.

  3. I openly admit to jealousy/envy although I can’t distinguish them. Alas, my skepticism prevents me from hero-worship in all but a very few and even then I am waiting for the foot-fall of their imperfections. I wince at my sons worship of sporting heroes and I especially have little respect for any parent who wants to push their children into the public arena to be admired.
    My BFF’s behaviour has also recalibrated my thinking, having realised a few home truths to things I once admired and envied about her. She will probably always be my BFF but I will never make myself as readily available as I once did.
    I am a skeptical, arrogant, envious, dismissive person and never forget an injustice against me. No one would want me as their hero, thank goodness. I can continue as I am.

  4. I admire yor honesty, Karen, you ‘skeptical, arrogant, envious, dismissive person’ who never forgets an injustice against her. Not my experience of you at all, but it’s a good description and could equally apply to most of us at times, heroes and all. Thanks, Karen

  5. Insightful. This is something I watch myself for continuously, especially as I begin new adventures that are, by nature, excessively vulnerable.
    The difference between envy and jealousy was explained to me once like this: Jealousy comes from wanting what is your’s, Envy comes from wanting what isn’t. This description applied mostly to the “I am a jealous God” phrase in the Bible but it’s an interesting standpoint. Of course, when you start to believe you are entitled to things then your envy may be justified as jealousy but I digress.
    Envy only leads to frustration and decreases self-esteem.
    Great post.

    1. That’s an interesting distinction between envy and jealousy, Mallory, and lends itself to the notion that there is something stealth-like in envy that’s different from the honest pain of jealousy. Thank you and it’s lovely to see you here.

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