Warning: This post is full of personal information about me, so if you are someone who doesn’t like to listen to people talk about themselves, you might want to skip this one. I will understand. But perhaps you can at least somewhat relate to some of my experiences – and my feelings about those experiences.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” We say it when someone gets a break for being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right person, rather than being talented enough to get the break on their abilities alone. We express a similar thought when we say, “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that counts.” I like it when good things happen to someone else – except when I wish that someone else were me. I admit it; sometimes I’m jealous of those that seem to get something they don’t deserve or that I deserve more (in my humble opinion). But don’t we all feel that way from time to time? If jealousy were a physical disease, almost all of us would be terminally ill in the hospital.
We often use jealousy and envy interchangeably, but I like the distinction Aristotle made: “Jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbor to have them through envy.” In other words, jealousy is inward directed, and can sometimes motivate us to work longer and try harder, while envy is outward directed, and can lead to hate of another. Using Aristotle’s distinction, I’m not sure I have been envious – where I took steps to prevent someone from getting something I wanted – and although I have never thought I was a jealous person, upon reflection, I have been jealous at times, at love, at work, and at writing.
One of my favorite romantic comedies is My Best Friend’s Wedding.[i] When Julianne learns that her long-time friend, Michael, is engaged, she decides that she loves him, and does everything she can to break up the wedding, including getting another man to pretend they are engaged, hoping to make Michael jealous enough to drop his engagement. But as the story progresses, Julianne must decide if love or jealousy motivates her. Here is a classic scene near the end of the film (spoiler alert):
In my love life, I have never gone through anything quite so dramatic, but I have felt the pangs of jealousy from time to time. I remember one incident in particular. My wife, Janene, had returned from a weekend visiting her sister and told me that, while there, she had run into an old boyfriend. So far, no big deal. But then she told me that she could sense that the former boyfriend still had feelings for her. Fortunately for me, nothing happened, except with me. Someone once said, next to the atom bomb, the greatest explosion is set off by an old flame. Jealousy exploded within me, even though I was the one who ultimately had won Janene’s heart. But it was also a reality check. Although it had been over a decade since Janene and this man had broken up, he still desired her. I realized once again that I had married someone special. And I better treat her that way. Since then, I have not been the perfect husband, but it was not from lack of trying.
The classic family film, Toy Story,[ii] is premised on jealousy. Buzz Lightyear, a boy’s newest toy, threatens Woody’s status as the boy’s favorite. Enjoy this scene where Woody’s and Buzz’s battle for top toy leads to some unintended consequences:
While Toy Story is not set in a work environment, it demonstrates what can happen when peers become jealous of each other. And haven’t you felt similar jealousy when someone other than you got the promotion you thought you deserved? It happened to me. XTO Energy hired me as the number two lawyer in the department, with the promise, if I didn’t mess up the opportunity, that I would be moved to the top spot when my boss retired. Things were working out as planned until ExxonMobil got in the way, which bought XTO three years after I started there. I felt lucky to have kept my job, as typically, a company that buys another will replace existing management with their own people. But I didn’t feel quite so lucky when my boss retired two years later, and ExxonMobil moved one of its own into the top lawyer position instead of me. Sure, my new boss was qualified, but that didn’t stop me from being jealous. Hadn’t I been promised the job when I started? I knew how XTO (and its people) did things better than the new guy. And I believed I was at least as good as, if not the better lawyer. So how did I react to being passed over? Unlike Woody and Buzz in Toy Story, instead of working with the new guy to make XTO a better company, I did the opposite. I shaved my head and grew a goatee, and vowed to work only so hard as required to get the job done. I gutted it out for another six years until retirement, but work was never the same, and I never fully got over those feelings of jealousy. But now I’m retired, and he is not!
As a writer (using that term loosely), I continue to experience some jealousy. I started writing as a hobby back in the early 90s when a woman at work challenged me to write a legal thriller as good as John Grisham’s. And so, I wrote Unrighteous Dominion (you can buy it or download it from Amazon!). I have never talked to any “regular” person that has read Unrighteous Dominion who did not enjoy it (although I’m sure those people exist). But despite praise from many, no publisher or agent got behind it, leaving me to self-publish it (maybe it was ahead of its time, as the premise of it is sexual harassment, and might have gotten more attention in the current “Me, Too” movement). Surprisingly, I have never felt jealousy toward John Grisham. Although I believe Unrighteous Dominion is as well-written as many (most?) of Grisham’s novels, I am happy for any practicing lawyer who makes it as a fiction writer.
But I have never gotten over feelings of jealousy regarding my second book, a sappy little Christmas story called, The Presents of Angels. (You can get it on Amazon, too, but better yet, if you would like a copy, let me know, and I will send you one.) When Unrighteous Dominion didn’t take off like I thought it might, I followed the lead of another writer, Richard Paul Evans. He originally self-published a little Christmas book called, The Christmas Box. He then went to everyone he knew and told them if they bought one copy, he would give them another to give away as a present. That year, I received at least two copies of his book as a present from relatives. His marketing campaign was so successful a leading publisher decided to publish it. Since then, Evans has published over thirty novels, all of which have been New York Times bestsellers. There are more than 30 million of his books in print worldwide, and they have been translated into more than 24 languages. I read The Christmas Box (and at least one other of his novels), and to this day, I cannot understand its success. The Presents of Angels is far superior. I know I’m biased, but many others agree with me. I even got it published by a small publishing company. But the commercial success of The Presents of Angels has been limited. I would have been happy if I had one-tenth of the success of Mr. Evans. I am hoping my jealousy will motivate me to continue to write. That is one of the reasons behind this blog. And the sequel to The Presents of Angels is on the horizon.
The movie, Atonement,[iii] dramatically illustrates the unintended consequences of jealousy. But here, envy, more than jealousy, is involved. [Spoiler Alert!] A thirteen-year-old girl has a crush on her older sister’s boyfriend. When she catches them making love, her envy leads her to accuse the boyfriend of the rape of her cousin, even though she saw the real perpetrator. That one act of envy ends up destroying the lives of both her sister and her boyfriend. The young girl, now 18, tries to make things right in this scene:
But in an interesting twist at the end, this girl learns that it is too late to make things right, and so she attempts to atone for her envy-motivated actions by publishing their story.
One of the saddest unintended consequences of jealousy (and sometimes envy) is that the person you are jealous of often doesn’t know about your jealousy. They continue to live their lives as they normally would, while you are left to let your emotions fester, harming no one but yourself. Richard Paul Evans has no idea I am jealous of him. Janene’s old boyfriend would probably laugh if he heard I was jealous of him since I got the girl. And even if my former boss at ExxonMobil knew I was jealous of him, which he probably does, he was not about to change his position and status to appease my jealousy. My jealousy, then, only hurt me.
One thing to remember is jealousy is a normal reaction to things that happen to us and others. Experience has taught me that jealousy can be a good thing if it motivates you to do something or to do something better, such as improving a skill, talent or craft. But it can also discourage us to the point where we give up on something we do well. And envy only leads to hate and potentially the destruction of other people’s lives. I hope we will always know the difference between jealousy and envy, and only use jealousy to motivate us for the better.
[i] My Best Friend’s Wedding
- Production Companies: TriStar Pictures, Zucker Brothers Productions, and Predawn Productions
- Director: P. J. Hogan
- Screenwriter: Ronald Bass
- Starring: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, and Cameron Diaz
- Release date: June 20, 1997
[ii] Toy Story
- Production Companies: Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures
- Director: John Lasseter
- Screenwriters: John Lasseter and Pete Docter
- Starring: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen
- Release date: November 22, 1995
- Production Companies: Universal Pictures, StudioCanal, and Relativity Media
- Director: Joe Wright
- Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)
- Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and Saoirse Ronan
- Release date: January 11, 2008