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.



On the first day of the year

The ‘frog police’ is an expression Amanda Palmer uses in her book, The Art of Asking, to describe those voices in your head that crop up from time to time, voices that say:

‘Who do you think you are?

What gives you the right?

Since when were you a success?

Since when did you think you could write, or sing or paint, or complete any other creative activity, worth recognising?

‘You’re a phoney, an imposter and it’s our job to out you to the world.’

These are my words to describe the frog police but we all know what Amanda Palmer means. I call them the ‘thought police’, your cruel conscience, your superego, which challenge you at every turn.

Just when you think you’re getting on your feet, the frog police come in and topple you over.

And they may not only arrive at moments of achievement. They can arrive when you least expect.  When you’re mid stride trying to get somewhere, trying to raise your standards – in my case trying to get my book published – and they come in to remind you of why it is no one wants to read your work. No one wants to reflect on your ideas. You’re crap, essentially a windbag, a no-good waste of space.

Damn those frog police, I say. Be gone.

It’s time to move onto more positive things.

Even so, I was alarmed at the number of New Years Eve posts on Facebook that tried to turn away from old-fashioned resolutions into posts of gratitude.

They were all sincere and heartfelt – stories of people wanting to acknowledge those others in their lives who’d made a difference – and it made me want to puke.

Not because these posts weren’t sincere and heartfelt but because that great ruler of the skies: Facebook or the twitterers and tweeters, social networking, and the social media intelligentsia, orchestrated them, and I buck under the strain.

I’m as much a part of this trend thing as the next. I use Facebook, I even tweet occasionally, though I haven’t yet mastered the art, but most of all I see the trends drift around.

Sometimes they’re upon me before I can even identify them.

Sometimes they appeal and I want to join the band, but other times they appal me, and fill me with revulsion for the sheep I have become.

When I was a teenager, I railed against the idea of the popular, particularly when it came to music. Not for me the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Not for me the football heroes on the field.

I preferred classical music, the Brahms and Beethovens. I preferred the romantic poets, the Wordsworths and the Tennysons. I preferred the old to the new.

Following the new put me into the category of the tryhards and the wannabes, when I was hell bent on being different, something special, and something above the throng.

Whenever a rock star landed at Essendon Airport, on the television during the news, I saw these girls, pushed up against the temporary fencing erected to keep them out. These girls, who wore mini skirts and make up, who flung their bodies over the makeshift fencing and screamed as loudly as they could whenever they caught a glimpse of their singing idols. The Monkeys, the Easy Beats, Normie Rowe. So many male musicians who found an adoring audience in these young women, who’d lost their minds to their idealisations.

Even then I wondered, how could it be?

I could not pitch myself into the minds of my contemporaries. I could not understand what all the fuss was about. I chose frumpdom over the modern, because the modern took very little time before it became boring and old hat.


Every time I sit down to write I hope something worthwhile will emerge, knowing in all likelihood it won’t. Not today. Maybe tomorrow, but I write regardless with the frog police hard on my heels, ready to be caught up in the Under Toad – thanks John Irving for coining this expression – to drag me away on the current and leave me dashed against rocks, broken and battered or else far out deep in sea, unable to find energy enough to keep on swimming or stay afloat, and therefore to drown.

Hang in there, I tell myself, something good will happen. On this first day of the year, a year as new as my grandson’s feet: