It starts out so innocently. He or she or they — a co-worker, a friend, some neighbours — say it so seemingly easily: “We’re planning to_____! This weekend, I’m going to _____. I’m happy about my ____”
I usually carry on with the conversation without showing what’s going on inside. Not because I’m suppressing or in denial about my reality, but the conversation isn’t about me and it’s not the time or the place to launch into my story.
But I can feel it, that wave of sadness. That feeling that life isn’t fair. That sense that for them, it’s all just so easy.
It doesn’t really matter what’s causing all this angst in me. We’ve all got some areas in our lives that just aren’t going as we’d like. Maybe it’s a major loss that has completely upended our world. Maybe it’s a physical feature that we loath each time we look in the mirror. Maybe it’s a deep loneliness that seemingly permeates into the marrows of our bones. Maybe it’s that crippling fear of getting the results back from the medical clinic and learning that a partner’s slightly “off” feeling is actually an indication of something serious.
And as we’re doing our best to cope with things, to learn the deeper lessons in all of it, to keep our chins up and put one foot in front of the other, a fellow passenger on the bus remarks that — guess what! – it’s a beautiful day out and she’s on her way to do that thing you can’t do. Or a co-worker comes back from lunch break and mentions that she just talked with her husband, and he said that — well, who knows what he said, because you were just so caught up in her seemingly big, bold announcement that she HAS a husband while you’ve been unattached for a decade longer than you’d like. Or maybe that other patient at the medical clinic walks out the door with a frickin’ bounce his step because all is well in his world. He’s got a superbly fantastic life and he gets to go to Save-On to buy groceries while you’re most likely going to have to re-organize your entire household and plans and attitude after you DON’T get the all-clear from the doctor.
What is all of this, anyway? I’ve asked myself that lately as I’ve been feeling stuck in my Situation (see Pebbles and White Flags essay). I know what’s going on in my world. I know that it is almost completely out of my control. I know I’ve done my best to fix things. I’ve gained such things as understanding and empathy. I’ve learned to bite my tongue, a lot.
Still, there seem to be more lessons to learn; for instance, in the moments when I hear others’ proclamations that they’ve got what I don’t. Are there lessons to learn in regards to envy? Jealousy? Gratitude? Maybe.
And so I do what I do in cases like this: ponder, read, listen, talk.
I contemplate the feelings of envy and jealousy. Both refer to wanting to have something that is not yours, but jealousy goes a bit deeper than envy. When you’re jealous, you’re also experiencing fear that something might be taken away from you. I might be envious that a friend has the chance to go to Alaska because I’d like to go there, too. That’s somewhat easy to deal with. But when that same friend tells me that she’s going with another friend, that might also stir up jealousy — manifesting as, perhaps, the insecurity that I’m not good enough (why didn’t she invite me? what’s wrong with me?) or the worry that this is a slippery slope leading to every person forgetting or dismissing me, always.
I pay a bit more attention to these topics as they come up in conversation. I go for a walk with my mom and she tells me that Friend A is envious of Friend B, and meanwhile Friend B is envious of Friend A. The things of which they are envious aren’t trivial things like purses and leather couches; they’re big things, like types of marriages and the health statuses of children and grandchildren. (Note to self: feelings of envy and jealousy don’t necessarily subside at age 40 or 50 or 60. We do what we can to cope with it, but it’s a fact of life that isn’t easily brushed aside. Fortunately, there are some benefits of these feelings, so that’s definitely a topic to google!)
In my readings, I come across this gem: “Stop being jealous of people in their winning season. You don’t know what they lost in their losing season.” I try to remember that someone’s excitement about their new house or spouse or friend might have been a long time in the making, finally a gain after many big losses, a happy occasion after years of struggles. I really don’t know what all happened before or what will happen next. I’m brought back to the present moment — the only moment we’ve got — when I remember the unpredictabilty of anyone’s life. Perhaps with practice and patience, we can be truly happy for others when they’re winning, instead of just focussing on our own seasons or areas of loss.
And when I think of all of that – of the ups and downs and unpredictability of life, of the fragility of it all – I am reminded to not take things for granted. I stop for a second when I hear that ding from my phone – a text message from my mom or a friend (not everyone gets those dings). I think grateful thoughts as I read ingredient lists to my elderly neighbour or help her find that nail file she dropped two days ago (she’s almost completely blind). I step on a scale at work for the first time in a month or two (I am no longer obsessed with weighing myself, calculating calories, and doing damage control after an evening of binging). Such seemingly little things and so easy to take for granted… unless we put on different lenses and see how precious those things can be.
In the near future, I’ll probably still wish that I could be that passenger on the bus or that co-worker who says so easily, “Oh, hey, great news about my ______!” And maybe someday I’ll be able to say it, too. Or maybe not. Maybe this part of my life will never be what I want it to be. Hopefully in time I’ll be able to quickly tuck away the niggling feelings of fear and sadness and jealousy, give a genuine smile, and say, “You’re lucky to have that.”
As for the distant future, well, who knows what things will be like in ten or twenty years? (I’m a pro at catastrophizing, so my first thought is usually along the lines of, “It’s all just going downhill now and will continue to do so for forever, so that really sucks, doesn’t it?”) Maybe I’ll adjust. Maybe down the road, my life will be so full of other distractions that I won’t think so much about the things that aren’t going as I’d like them to go. Maybe I’ll be quicker to remind myself of these words of wisdom from the philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” What will my small world and the bigger world around me look like when I’m 55? I have no idea, so there’s really no point in trying to figure out all the details now.
That all being said, maybe I’d do well for myself to shift my thoughts more often from the things that I cannot say so easily to the things that I CAN say easily: “I’m not terrified of spiders or flying or dentists.” “I like my job.” “Oh, that medical procedure I had two weeks ago? Turned out to be nothing serious!” Chances are, someone out there wishes they could say those things, too.