The Gift Wrapped In Envy
first published July 2018
‘The great thing about this kind of work is that every feeling that you have, every negative feeling, is in a way precious. It is your building material, it’s your stone, it’s something you use to build your work.’
Richard Stern, novelist
I received a request to write about jealousy. My first thoughts were of Julia Cameron’s brilliant writing on jealousy, or envy, in The Artist’s Way; at one point, although she was never jealous of other women novelists, she had been extremely critical of women screenwriters’ work - until she wrote her first play. The envy and criticisms died away, replaced by a feeling of camaraderie. This is the gift wrapped in envy– it indicates to us that there’s something we want. And then we can decide how to deal with the intensity of that desire.
I remember when I was about twenty, one of my fellow art students had an older friend who was incredibly bitter about artists and art. ‘Art is fart,’ he would say, angrily and bitterly (with no sense of humour!) But a few years later he had enrolled as an art student. He was able to admit to himself what he wanted and he went after it. This takes courage; usually where there is intense jealousy or envy, there's also a feeling of fear and paralysis, an inability to go after what we want. I’ve met others who, while not making any work themselves, have been stuck in railing against the poor quality of work by others.
So before we can use envy as an opportunity, we might need to calm down its emotional tone. Envy, if we allow it to develop autonomy, becomes a sub-personality that drags us down; we find ourselves up to the neck in negativity, a belief that there's not enough creativity and success to go around. It becomes virtually impossible to wish anyone well, not even ourselves. So who’s going to be in charge – You, or your envy?
Taking charge is a bit like dealing with a distressed child or teenager. Try telling a child or teenager to stop being unreasonable! Instead, we acknowledge their distress, we don’t laugh at the extremity of their rants, and we try to provide a steady, non-judgemental presence until the emotion begins to run out of fuel. We can do the same for ourselves. We can recognise that we are not our envious feelings, refuse to give them extra fuel and give them time to ease up in their intensity.
Then we might be ready to look for ways to deal with our longings. The writer, Anne Lamott1, is hilariously honest in writing about jealousy, warning writers that they “are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know – people who are, in other words, not you.” If you give yourself a hard time about your feelings of jealousy, I recommend her book – she’ll have you laughing, which reduces a lot of pressure! And also, as suggested in the Richard Stern quote at the beginning, she demonstrates using negative feeling to build a brilliant piece of writing.
What is it in the success of others that we really want? Do we envy their creativity, invention, ability to speak articulately? Or is it the money? Is it the fame? Is it the popularity, the respect, the freedom from holding down a part time job, the beautiful house, the attention? Or are we simply living in the atmosphere, created by others, of a consensus that these people are to be envied?
It’s easy to lump everything into the word 'success' but sometimes we simply imagine that it will make us feel good about ourselves. Bearing in mind that some successful people don’t feel particularly good about themselves, perhaps then, it would be better to aim directly for self respect, without being impeded by the belief that it requires success to get us there.
If we really long for more time, there could be ways to find more time. Or is there a longing to feel rich? When I was really poor, my fantasy of being successful was of always having shiny new shoes and vases of flowers in the house. Now I have shiny shoes, and sometimes I buy myself flowers; does this mean that I’m rich? Well, I get to feel rich. What would allow you to feel rich?
Last week I saw a magical exhibition of work by Studio Drift in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The seeds of hundreds of dandelion clocks stuck on to LED lights filled a gallery; another gallery had hanging lights, looking like little test tubes, which lit up in response to our movements, their sequence replicating the movements of a flock of birds; a huge 'concrete' block floated in another gallery. The scale of their achievements, intellect and imagination is way beyond my reach. I considered whether I was envious of them. But I didn’t feel envy, I felt delight. It sparked a hunger for more magic in my own work. To admire, to be inspired, even to feel, “I would like a little of what you have” is a gift that doesn’t always arrive wrapped in envy. But when it does, let’s have fun unwrapping it.
1Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Image: Installation view Studio Drift: Coded Nature. Photo Gert Jan van Rooji
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