I sat down in a good mood on a sunny Sunday morning to look at my email and there it was, lying in wait. The email was from a colleague who is in every respect my doppelgänger: same age, same work, same writing style, same graduate school, hair color, sense of humor—same everything. And on this fine morning, she sucker-punched me. Her newsletter fairly gushed onto my desk, letting me know that not only does she have a thriving practice, but that her just-published book (which got an agent and major publishing house right out of the gate) is #2 on Amazon.
I turned a pale shade of green and got all tight and twisted. And then the voices began. How nice for her! A booming practice, talk shows and a best-seller! And what are you doing, Kate? Nothing! You’re just schlepping along in obscurity.
I have very mean voices.
I decided to take out my excess energies on the dishes but found myself awash in a slimy sea of shame, rancor and envy, feeling peevish and small and getting smaller by the minute.
Joseph Epstein, in his book Envy, (2003) notes that, “of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” Truer words were never written. While anger can be relieving and sloth and gluttony positively delicious, envy torments the soul. It asks only one very unhelpful and whiny question: Why not me?
Envy is a miserable emotion. It sucks us out of our life (and our life out of us), depositing us in a bleak terrain where we are so focused on what we don’t have that we forget about all that we do have. It’s a sort of green herring, shifting our attention away from what’s real and vital. It’s also very human.
Still leaning into the sacred healing center of the kitchen sink I inhaled deeply and began to question those horrid little voices in an attempt to talk myself off the ledge. No, I thought, I am not nothing. I am also not my colleague, whose best-selling book, it should be noted, is about her painful experience of not being able to have children. I don’t have the boisterous career my colleague has, it’s true, but I have something my colleague does not: two beautiful somethings who are the very center and meaning of my life. So who’s the lucky one? (Answer: we both are.)
We all entertain fantasies in which we imagine that his life or her life is so much better, so much happier, so much easier—and that’s exactly what they are: fantasies. The truth is that everyone’s life has its measure of struggle and suffering, along with its portion of good fortune and happiness. The trick, in moments of torrential envy, is to remember this. More importantly, each and every one of us is on a unique spiritual trajectory, having myriad experiences, and our only task is to make the most of what we’re given. How sad it would be to waste what poet Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life” trying to live someone else’s, or wishing that we were.
Lately I’m singing the lyrics of a popular country song which goes, “we all want what we ain’t got.” It’s inspired my own rejoinder that I am singing to myself a lot these days: All I want was what I have.
Check out the thought provoking Jake Owen video here: