Jealousy, Candy, and the Futile in Comparison

Ever since I started school, my mother always did the best with her few connection to get me to the most elite classes. She believed they would frame my life for the better. So my elementary class was full of six-year-old little girls who wore colorful bows on their long shiny hair, wrote on pink Hello Kitty notebooks, kept their books in glossy backpacks, ran around in and giggled in impeccable blue uniformed dresses and matching shoes. There were boys too; one of them had the brightest smile I’d ever seen. I found myself glancing at him a little too often and imagining, with pounding heart, that he did the same, that he watched me in secret too.

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I knew that the girls liked him, girls like flowers tended in fancy greenhouse, and bloomed in colorful bows, shiny hairs, Hello Kitty notebooks, glossy backpacks, blue dresses, matching shoes, and rich parents. But I knew there was something special between he and I. When he asked me what my parents did, without a blink, I told him what every other girl said, that my dad was a director of a company, my mom was head doctor of the biggest hospital, and that my family lived in the middle of a neighborhood full of villas. One day all students needed to bring the student registration books. He peeked at my book and found out that my dad was an engineer, my mom was a doctor at a local clinic, and my house belonged to a run down apartment building. He read them out loud in laughter. That night I cried myself to sleep, dreaming in bitterness about things my family and I didn’t have.

Jealousy. It is difficult for me to write about it. I want to get myself on a soapbox and proclaim my heart to be too pure for something as petty and slimy, and sickening, and pathetic as jealousy. Only that it is a lie. To borrow the word of Dani Shapiro “an ugly, shameful thing, better shoved under the rug. Except that we all feel it. We have experienced that stomach-churning sickness, that spiritual malaise, of coveting another person’s good fortune.” Yes, you and I, we all know of the boiling wash of jealousy. When that one person, or few persons achieve at such level, and at such age that we can never in our right mind dream of achieving. There goes the 30 under 30 list, where a slot that person has already claimed. We wept. In “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott wrote that we get all caught up in such torment because we feel like the kid outside the candy-store window again, and we believe that this friend, this friend whom we now hate, has all the candy. I couldn’t find a better metaphor.

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Parul Sehgal in her eloquent TED talk “An Ode to Envy” marveled at the force of jealousy: “It's so mysterious, and it's so pervasive. We know babies suffer from jealousy. We know primates do. Bluebirds are actually very prone. We know that jealousy is the number one cause of spousal murder in the United States. And yet, I have never read a study that can parse to me its loneliness or its longevity or its grim thrill.” And she mentioned something important: “I think it cuts very close to the bone, because let's think about what happens when we feel jealous. When we feel jealous, we tell ourselves a story. We tell ourselves a story about other people's lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they're designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience, we know just what details to include, to dig that knife in.”

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Here we are, being that kid again, tiptoeing outside the candy-store window, looking at the bags full of chocolate, rainbow lollipops, gummy bears, and cake with frosting like snow flake handed over to our dear friend, telling ourselves a story about how all those stuff will make our friend prettier, have longer, shinier hair, and the boy with a bright smile we had a crush on in first grade will marry her, and they live happily ever after, while our lives wither away candy-less-ly.

Jealousy isn’t born out of bad characters. It results from the very innate fears of being deprived, inadequate, and excluded. Jealousy is about some of our deepest needs: the needs to claim our worth, the needs for love and belonging – which explains the destructive power of jealousy, to others, and especially to ourselves. “Jealousy reveals us to ourselves. And does any other emotion crack us open in this particular way? Does any other emotion reveal to us our aggression and our hideous ambition and our entitlement? Does any other emotion teach us to look with such peculiar intensity?”, said Parul Sehgal. But getting baffled by jealousy is fighting the wrong fight.

Dani Shapiro encapsulates her own awaken moment from jealousy so poignantly in “Still Writing:

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect . . . I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom—girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys who wonder when—and if—they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! Your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this—about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another

The last sentence moved me deeply. Jealousy boils down to our impulse to compare our life with other. Why do we compare? I doubt we compare because we are bad people or because we are stupid. I think we compare because that’s what we have been taught to do. We live in a society that compares and promote competitiveness. I remember how my mother compares our house and our money to that of our neighbors. I remember how my teacher compares my hand writing and my grades to that of my class mate. I remember how the TV ads compares a woman’s skin to that of another, and make a point of telling if she doesn’t purchase the product, thus fails to have a fairer skin, she will be forever inadequate, unconfident and have no boyfriend. We live in a culture that equals happiness and success to “having more than others”, that compels us to hustle for self-worth from outside, instead of claiming from within. When we see jealousy as something all-too-human, we can start to accept it as it is and find our way to walk through it.

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Walking through jealousy whenever it emerges from the dark corner of our ego – and it always does – requires in us a mental shift. In “Writing Down the Bones” there is only one part where Natalie Goldberg mentioned jealousy, Zen teaching echoed in her passage:

Don’t be jealous, especially secretly. That’s the worst kind. If someone writes something great, it’s just more clarity in the world for all of us. Don’t make writers “other,” different from you: “They are good and I am bad.” Don’t create that dichotomy. It makes it hard to become good if you create that duality. The opposite, of course, is also true: if you say, “I am great and they aren’t,” then you become too proud, unable to grow as a writer or hear criticism of your work. Just: “They are good and I am good.” That statement gives a lot of space. “They have been at it longer, and I can walk their path for a while and learn from them.”

It’s much better to be a tribal writer, writing for all people and reflecting many voices through us, than to be a cloistered being trying to find one peanut of truth in our own individual mind. Become big and write with the whole world in your arms.

We are not separate from everything else. It’s only our egos that make us think we are. We build on what came before us, even if our writing is a reaction to it or we try to negate the past. We still write with the knowledge of what’s at our backs.

This helps me to think of others’ successes not as the obstacles to reach my goals but as the supporting force at my back. It also helps to remind myself that happiness, success and self-worth are not measured by candies – rainbow lollipops or gummy bears. And the little girl outside the candy-store window will soon  be humming a cheerful tune on the ride home with her grandfather. The shadow of his slim figure. His beret hat. The squeaky bicycle. A small and warm dumpling in her hands.