The Jealousy of Good Things
Recently, I read about a philanthropist who made a very generous gift that will positively impact mental health in their community both in the present and generations from now. It was an exciting and praiseworthy gift.
Yet, as I read over the press release, I only felt a sense of failure and frustration. I felt a failure as I had to admit to myself I would likely never be able to give such a gift. At best, I can do the work that said gifts often fund but that rarely comes with the adulation and praise that I pettily desire.
I felt frustration at allowing myself to let such envy take hold of my mind. Frustration quickly led to quiet anger, restlessness and unhelpful ruminating. I spent the rest of the day in that state, growing more and more weary as I tried to fight off the demons of my self-created vulnerability.
In a sense, I am suffering from the Facebook effect. The Facebook effect is the very real phenomenon of people developing depressive states from viewing their friends social media posts. This happens because we tend to post the highlights of our lives on social media. As I scroll through Facebook all I see are happy moments. It makes it seem like everyone else’s life is amazing and wonderful and perfect and I am forced to consider that my life is not as amazing and wonderful and perfect 24/7.
But, the Facebook effect is not new. Though the format in which it occurs may be new, the jealousy of good things has been around since the earliest days of humanity.
For my birthday a few weeks ago, my wife gifted me A Song of the Sparrows by Murray Bodo. It is a collection of poems and meditations on life and spirituality. The next morning after the evening I spent alternating pitying and loathing myself, I came across the passage below. (Passage in italics, my reflections follow.)
“When I compare myself to others, I have an immense sense of failure, of inadequacy because I see only their strengths which seldom are my strengths.”
No matter how much I try, I can’t have it all and I can’t be everything. As a child, I never liked Choose Your Own Adventure books. I wanted all the adventures. I hated being limited to only one option and knowing if I picked a particular option then all other options were likely off-the-table. What if I picked the wrong one?
As an adult, I have made intentional choices to prioritize my family over my career. I made this decision knowing full well how it could potentially negatively affect my future earnings and opportunities of influence I may have been on track for.
But, I love the opportunities focusing on my family has given me to spend time with my children and spouse! Being a stay-at-home dad has been an amazing opportunity that has allowed me to build stronger relationships with my children, be a better support to my wife and to go through my own much-needed time of self-introspection and maturation.
And yet, in the moment, I allow myself to feel like a failure when I learn of others who are further along in their careers, make more money, have more influence and success, etc. In other words, I let myself feel poorly for not doing things well that are not strengths I have prioritized developing.
“But when I forget comparisons and look only to what needs to be done, what can be done, I am at peace in the knowledge that I have something to give, something to offer. If I give of myself, it will make a difference, even though someone else could be given more, could have loved more perfectly, could have succeeded where I failed.”
A few years ago while working on a residential treatment campus for adolescents, a youth who was upset told me that I was the worst teacher on campus. For good child development related reasons, I was trained to avoid getting into content with youth when they were upset. But, sometimes, I couldn’t help myself. I responded somewhat jokingly but truthfully that I did not feel I was the worst teacher on campus. I could think of others who were better, but I could also think of some who were definitely worse. And that, all things considered, I didn’t feel I was anything less than the third worst teacher on campus.
There will always be someone better than me at anything I do. But, I have become okay with this knowledge as it allows me the opportunity to fail and not be a failure. It gives me the opportunity to do good work and not listen to the voice in my head that attempts to remind me that I could have and should have done better. I don’t have to be the best at everything I do, I only need to give an honest effort at what I do.
“If only everyone realized that the gift she or he can give is unique and does make a difference! What pain of self-pity he or she would be spared!”
For me, to accept that the gift I can give is unique is extremely difficult. It is easy to assume any skill I have is a skill anyone can learn. When I see people with skills I do not possess any form of mastery in, it is easy to conclude there is something wrong with me that I cannot do everything everyone else can do. It’s a rather selfish way to view others. That is, that another’s uniqueness is merely a function of my own limitations and not a reflection of said person’s unique skill and the discipline it took them to master that skill.
My younger brother is an excellent musician. He can pick up an instrument he’s never played before and within a few weeks, he’s attained some level of mastery over it. On the other hand, my brief middle school band experience as the 3rd chair in a two person trombone section more than confirmed to me that I lacked the ability or discipline needed to be even a mediocre musician. I could pity myself for this. I could be bitter towards my brother that he somehow stole all the family’s musical talent. I could dismiss his talent as a worthless pursuit. Or, I could appreciate the uniqueness of my brother’s gift and enjoy the fruits of his labor. I have long since chosen the latter option and appreciate the opportunities I have since had to enjoy the ways in which he uses one of his gifts.
“We can never be the people we admire. We can only be ourselves, and that alone is admirable.”
What else can really be said? I can never be anyone but myself. If I spend my life wanting to be someone else, I am likely to end up loathing myself as that is a goal I will never be able to achieve. But, if I can accept my faults and focus on my strengths, then perhaps who I am will eventually be someone I want to be.