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.