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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Yes, Maybe They Are Just Envious…

There’s a particular flaw to which modest, kind, self-punishing people are especially prone: an inability to believe that other people might be envious of them – and by consequence, an acute difficulty in making sense of certain forms of behaviour, let alone in knowing how to respond effectively to them.

For one kind of person, the idea that anyone would envy them seems plainly absurd. They exist with such an acute awareness of all they feel is wrong with them, they might have grown up so criticised by those close to them, they are such experts in self-flagellation, the notion that they might be an object of envy to others simply doesn’t appear plausible. They aren’t being cute or hiding arrogance behind a veneer of modesty. They really don’t see how – given all that they are – they could possibly be the targets of another’s rivalrous wishes. They know all about wanting to be someone else; so little about others returning the compliment. 

The problem is that – without an appreciation of the ubiquitous role of envy in everyday life – a lot of what people do becomes unfairly hard to understand. Why has this person, who has been a good friend since childhood, suddenly gone erratic and distant? Perhaps one has offended them? Maybe one did something wrong? Might one have said an awkward thing that time? The search for an explanation gets ever more convoluted – and in the process what is missed is something very basic that would immediately strike a less internally confused outsider: that the coldness has come just after one’s wedding, or after the promotion, or in a period when one has learnt how to be happy. The old friend hasn’t just ‘gone weird’, no offence has been caused; this is something far simpler and far more logical, that old reliable stalwart of human motivation…

Edvard Munch, Jealousy, 1933-1935, Wikimedia Commons

It pays to stop being the meek child one once was. One now does have things that others might want: it might be health or good taste, a pleasant home or a calm manner. One may be acutely aware of just how much is missing from one’s life. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others in the vicinity who aren’t quietly morbidly upset at what the world hasn’t given them.

We are – through an unobserved naivety of mind – in danger of misunderstanding our relations to people. We may need to stop apologising. We may have to stop scrutinising our behaviour for errors to such an extent. We may have to do what one should whenever there is envy: appreciate there is no way to quench it – and put a large moat between its sufferer and ourselves.

Children are the best guide’s to envy’s constant role. They have no illusions about their own niceness, and so will instantly and with beautiful frankness want to hit the toddler with the shinier fire truck, the extra biscuit or mother’s attention. 

We should accept with grace that we are – of course – no different. We can dare to believe something till now very surprising and that we may have shielded ourselves from behind a pose of subjection and inferiority: it might really be nothing more or less complicated than that they are – after all – really very jealous… The idea is in no way pleasant, but to hold it firmly and unsentimentally in our hands will unlock repeated parts of life that can otherwise simply never make any sense. 

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