Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On jealousy versus envy

It sometimes surprises -- sometimes angers -- people who get to know me that I don't suffer from jealousy. I'm not a possessive type, even though it's fair to say I'm needy. (And as I'll explain, I have things I am jealous of.)

But I am prey to envy.

Hold on though. Aren't those the same thing? Although dictionaries define them as synonyms, I don't understand them to be, and I think the distinction is fairly simply explained.

You are jealous of the things that belong to you, and envious of the things that aren't. It's easy to understand with an example. If you are married and feel bad about your partner sleeping with someone else, you are jealous. If you feel bad about someone else's partner sleeping with them, you are envious. Jealousy is most often wanting no one else to have, or to take, what is yours; envy is most often wanting to have, or to take, what is someone else's.

Isn't it natural though, that you should want people who belong to you, whom you love, to belong to you alone? I suppose it is, but my conception of love is different from that, and I've never been able to feel that way. I see it like this: people have needs, a spectrum of desires and wants, complexes of things that fulfil them. Any given person can provide some of those things but only if we are simple enough or in principle lucky enough do they provide all of them. I do not mind that I am not sufficient to fill every corner of a person's life: if they said I did, I would wonder whether they had somehow diminished themselves to make it true, or whether they were simply lying to make me happy. I know this is not a common view: most of us feel we should be enough for each other. We are sold the myth that we will be. But how much of our disappointment is born in clinging to that story, even though life proves it untrue?

Often -- usually, I suppose -- the needs we cannot meet are simply questions of interest: our partners love football and we don't, or they like to talk about television but we do not watch the same shows. Sometimes they are questions of unwillingness: we want something our partner cannot or will not provide. If Mrs Zen was a bisexual, how could I ever provide everything she needs? I could not, and I would not mind at all if she had a girlfriend in that case.

Don't I have rights though? Isn't she in some sense my property? The thought makes me shudder. Love for me could never be a cage. When I love you, I want to help you actualise yourself. That is what love is, in part, for me. It is not coin I purchase you with.

But -- there is a but -- if I am meeting your needs, if I am giving you the things you want, and you look in other places for them all the same, then I feel I have reason to be upset. I am jealous of the other who is in my place because I feel usurped. It's important to me though that this is not something in theory, that it is not that I could give you what you need. I must actually be doing it. I am not at all of the belief that I should be jealous on principle. If I could but didn't bother, then I have nothing to be jealous of.

So what about envy? Don't get me started! I am kidding, of course. These days, I don't envy much, and I feel that my envy complements my jealousy, because I tend only to envy the spaces others don't fill. I do not want to take what others have so much as I want to take what they are not interested in, or what is similar to what they have but could be spared.

Is it even really envy to want what others don't want? All you are envying is the opportunity, and that opportunity is for you, no one else. Well I suppose it is: you envy the outcomes as well as the opportunities, the things the outcomes bring, the enjoyment of the things. There is no completely virtuous ambition. And however sprawling our suburban universes are, the human world is crowded and the spaces we fill are spaces that others could fill, and that leads us to the jealousy that we began this piece by denying we ever feel.

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