Sunday, April 20, 2008

Professional Envy, an Ugly Thing

We're taught from an early age not to envy others...or what they have. Score another one for moms everywhere, because boy, did they know what they were talkin' about on that score or what?

I was just talking with a writer pal who'd been talking about another writer pal who'd just slam-dunked a multi-book contract with a major New York house. Big fat advance, higher-than-normal royalties, book tour, ads in the NY Times, the whole schlameezel. Amid my woo-hoos and atta girls, my pal slipped in a couple of snide remarks--punctuated with giggles, lest I think she's envious--which got me t'thinkin' about the sometimes dark and dangerous subject of professional envy.

But before delving deeper into this quicksand-like subject, let's define the difference between envy and jealousy:

Jealousy, for the most part, involves three people (you, your lover, your lover's lover), whereas envy concerns two (you, and that no-talent hack who got a book contract on the heels of your latest rejection). Envy isn't resentment, longing, or desire. Envy is more malicious than that. It's what prompts a seemingly nice person like my writer pal to make wise cracks that smack of, well, envy!

Simply put, envy is the result of wanting something somebody else has. Doesn't matter much if that something is a better car, a bigger house, a nicer vacation, a prettier face, a more curvaceous figure, or a book contract. Envy is the ugly emotion that made my usually nice writer pal a bona fide member of the Greedy Pig Club (hereafter referred to as GP). GPs rarely take into account that the object of their envy worked hard for many years to achieve whatever it is they have that turns others into green-eyed monsters. Instead, GPs become angry and resentful, and if gone unchecked, their envious behavior can turn a friend into an enemy.

Thomas Aquinas said "Envy according to the aspect of its object is contrary to charity ... charity rejoices in our neighbor's good, while envy grieves over it." The GPs of the world will not be happy to hear you've just made the best deal of your career. Why? Because they want what you've got. And rather than admit they could have it, too, if they'd pay the price you paid to get it, they narrow their eyes and purse their lips and cuss (not always under their breath) while madly scribbling 'how in the hell did that happen?' and 'ways I'd like to torture her' and 'why not me' lists.

Aristotle defined envy as "the pain caused by the good fortune of others". Right on, Ari! Cuz make no mistake, m'friends: GPs suffer big time when peers' careers advance!

Of all the emotions out there, two scare me and tick me off more than the rest. Envy is one of 'em. It didn't become one of the Seven Deadly Sins by happenstance. It wasn't the inspiration for poetry, movies, or songs 'just cuz'. It wasn't carved onto stone tablets cuz God was thinkin', "Well, they're good people, but just in case...."

Envy has been around since the dawn of Man. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Cave Man A clubbed Cave Man B to death because he envied the size of B's...cave. (Though, technically, that would fall more into the 'jealousy' category. But it started out as envy.) It isn't new to stories, nor is it new in stories; Shakespeare included it in Othello and The Merchant of Venice, to name just two.

But I digress.

My most memorable experience with envy occurred some years ago, after I'd earned dozens of book contracts. I happily mentored a woman whom I believed to be a close personal friend, devoting countless hours to editing and critiquing her manuscripts in the hope she could join me on Published Authors Row. She managed to win one contest, get one short stories included in my friend's anthology, but never managed to get That Book published the traditional way. (If she'd taken my advice, might a publisher have offered a contract? If she'd made some of my suggested changes, would she have been forced to self-publish the book? Who knows.)

But again, I digress....

I had many more years in the business and a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude, but that never entered her head. Envy of what I'd achieved began eating away at our relationship. She grew angry and edgy, spiteful and resentful, and showed it in her rude behavior and cutting comments. I chalked it all up to a snobbish, domineering, know-it-all slob of a spouse, rather than admit she'd started seeing me as a rival.

Then one day, while I was recuperating from a serious illness, she visited. As I sipped tea, she asked to borrow my copy machine. I didn't have the energy to accompany her into my office, but she'd been a friend for more than a decade, had been in there dozens of times. Never crossed my mind that she'd steal from me.

It wasn't until weeks later, when I read an item in a writers' organization newsletter, that I realized she'd visited with a calculating and deliberate purpose: To photocopy my lesson plans and an important business plan (one of a dozen things she stole that afternoon) and pass them off as her own.

But don't feel sorry for me, dearies, because I wasn't the real victim, here. It was my GP. What's more, I believe she saw herself as a victim, as well. (I've since figured out she's also a raging narcissist, but that's a whole other blog.) Envy, for her, came with feelings of entitlement that helped her rationalize the crimes she'd committed. (That, and like all good narcissists, she found another author to 'feed' offa.) She resented me to the point of hatred for having accomplished what she wished she could have accomplished. Was it low self-esteem, self-loathing, or laziness that blinded her to the fact that I worked for everything I have, struggled to reach every goal in my life, including those of 'the writing kind'? Only she knows the answer to that.

The power of her envy prompted every thought and action, allowed her to rationalize away all the bad stuff she'd said and done. Envy is like that, see. It gets inside you and, if you let it, behaves like a hungry parasite, feeding on what used to be your good nature, your pride and dignity, your honesty.

To paraphrase Bertram Russell, envy is one of the major causes of unhappiness. That's putting it mildly, cuz that gal, m'friends, is still one of the unhappiest human beings I've had the displeasure of knowing.

Let's not forget that envy is a very normal human emotion, one that impacts all of us at one time or another, regardless of social class, race, religion, age, or gender. Most of us quickly get it under control, but if left unchecked, it's powerful and dangerous.

But envy can be a very good thing...

...if it inspires us to work harder, reach farther, broaden our horizons, improve who or what we are in an attempt to 'grow' to the heights of those we admire.

Call me Pollyanna, but when I hear that a friend, acquaintance, relative, or neighbor finally got the car they've been saving for, moved into the home of their dreams, returned from an adventurous vacation, signed a book contract, or saw one of their novels turned into a movie, I'm genuinely happy for them! The joy of their successes and achievements spills onto me. How can that be a bad thing!

So, alla you writers out there, next time you feel a twinge of envy because one of your pals moved up a rung on the Writing Ladder of Success, don't wallow in self-pity. Don't speculate which relative is the editor or agent who made it all possible. Don't trod on her talents. Don't call her everything but an author. Turn in your Greedy Pig Club membership card, immediately!

Then write her a note. Tell her how happy you are about her good news. Say "High fives!" and "Thumbs up!" Then get on your knees and pray like crazy that fifty more of your writer pals will move up another rung, so you can write each of them a similar note.

I guarantee that by the time you sign that 50th "Congratulations!" card, you'll actually mean it.

Until next time, keep writing...and before you know it, your writer friends will be high-fiving and thumbs-upping you!

Oh...and the other emotion that scares me and ticks me off? Self-pity. Don't worry, I'll save that one for another blog. hehehehehehe