Envier, Know Thyself

"The envious want to be superior, for their self-esteem depends on outranking others in the relevant field of comparison.  Their own identity hangs on excelling others, but only those others who threaten that identity, that is, those close enough to be compared as rivals.  If we reflect on whom we envy, we are likely to discover how we define our identity and where we see that identity as most vulnerable.  Envy generally strikes in areas where another's superiority seems to threaten or lessen our own excellence and where that comparison leaves us feeling inferior in a way close to our identity."

--Rebecca Konynyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 49.

So, okay, I made a list: "Whom do I envy?  That is, whom do I most want to see destroyed, like Salieri wanted Mozart destroyed?"  I won't share that list with you (no, no, no, no, no, no, no).  (It had ten names on it, if you want to know.)  What was instructive and possibly somewhat more worth sharing was what I learned from it about where I see myself--my identity--as most vulnerable.  At the moment, I am trying to figure out whether these are things that I want simply to have (pride) or want out of a desire to be considered worthy of honor by my fellow scholars (ambition).  I am fairly sure that I actually want to be excellent, not just applauded by as many people as possible (vainglory), but I am willing to allow that there may be just a tinge of vanity involved (just, you know, a tinge).  What I am really curious to know is whether telling you that I feel vulnerable in these areas will make these particular anxieties go away because I will no longer be depending on the illusion of having these things as a part of my identity.  (It's a theory, anyway.)  So, deep breath, here goes.

1.  Language skills:  I know, I know, I've spent the past year and a half translating a very difficult piece of medieval Latin, how could I possibly think my language skills weren't up to snuff?  But they're not, they're really not.  Sure, I can read French and German and even a little bit of Spanish and Italian (at a pinch), and I've studied ancient Greek and Old English.  Give me a text and a dictionary in most alphabetic languages, and I am confident that, with enough time, I could read it.  But the only language that I actually speak is English.  (There, I said it.  Now my blood pressure has gone through the roof.  Or it would, except my blood pressure is typically on the low side.  Desperately trying to save face.)

2.  Having a house:  You know this one, I've already written about it.  I am amazed that it has the tenacity that it does, even when I can think about all of the reasons that I really don't want a house (the yardwork, to begin with).  And yet, the proximate trigger for this current bout of envy was a conversation about houses, so it clearly still has teeth.  Perhaps because it is still tangled up in my fantasies about how perfect my life would be "if only"?  Almost certainly because I know people who talk about houses as the be-all and end-all of their existence (proximate trigger), but also, I know, because I really do enjoy having a pleasant home.  I don't think this one is about pride or ambition; maybe it's just pure envy: I want a house.  But not her house, so perhaps it's just greed.

3.  Outside offers:  Again, you know this one.  But the thing is, I really don't want a different job.  I like my job, I like the city where I live, I love my students, I love the teaching that I get to do here.  There really isn't anything I would change about my job--except for the feeling of inferiority I get every time I hear about one of my colleagues getting one of those much coveted outside offers.  Which means promotions.  And raises.  And greater attention from our administrators (at least, for the course of the negotiations).  It makes me want to spit.  (Yup, still pretty envious about this one.)

4.  Other scholars' attention:  Yup, I am that insecure.  So shoot me.  I want to hear my work cited at conferences.  I want to see it cited in other people's books.  I want to have the sense that the work that I have done has had an impact, made people think, perhaps, okay, yes, impressed them as particularly insightful, certainly as impeccably researched.  I want a reputation as a brilliant thinker and rigorous scholar.  (And don't try to reassure me that I already do--I want a bigger one!  Does this count as ambition or greed?)

5.  Publications:  That is, more publications.  Lots and lots of publications.  How do some people manage to write and publish so much?  Sigh.  I am sure that this is one of the reasons that Tolkien and Lewis fell out.  There Tolkien was, laboring over his single great book, while Lewis seemingly effortlessly churned out reams and reams of insightful and various work.  It just isn't fair!  Why can some of my colleagues manage to publish a book every few years, while at best I am only going to manage one every ten to fifteen (not counting articles)?  Because, of course, we are writing different kinds of books, but still.  Why should they have been blessed with good writing habits and not me?  (Working on this one, it doesn't feel quite so desperate as it did.)

6.  Ease in writing, real skill in writing:  This is part of the previous anxiety.  One of the people on my list once said to me that she found academic writing relatively easy (as, to judge from her publications list, she must), and I have been grinding my teeth over it ever since.  Easy?!!  This is supposed to be hard work, not just something you dash off between exotic vacations!  At least, if you've published that much, have the graciousness to admit that it took a little bit of effort, perhaps even made you break a sweat!  Sheesh.  But, of course, thanks to Prof. Boice, I appreciate that she may have been on the right track after all.  (NB, if you're still wondering, most of the names on my list were shes.  Envy tends to run along same-sex lines.)

7.  Style, taste:  Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to find this anxiety peeking out, but there it was.  I do envy other women their ability to dress well, make their homes look good, speak and move in a particular way.  I tend to pride myself on my sense of style, on my taste in clothes and home furnishings, more than maybe it seems, given that I am perfectly happy not to wear make-up or color my hair, but there you go, we all have our standards.  I wish that I had more money for nice things, nice clothes, but after last summer's decluttering, I appreciate that one of the secrets to having more is having less, so this one seems to be fading.  But I do still envy those who seem to be able to find clothes that look really good.

8.  Being younger than my peers:  Ah, yes.  Perhaps you wouldn't know about this one.  I was put up a grade in elementary school, from second to third after the first month or so.  For the rest of my childhood, it was a great badge of pride.  Not only was I one of the smartest (read, A-students) in my grade, I was younger than everyone else in my class.  (Except, of course, Barry, who loves reminding me of this fact whenever he can.  He's one of those disgustingly rich lawyers now.  Natch.)  Even in graduate school, I still managed to be younger; I finished my dissertation before I turned 30 and started teaching where I do now at age 29.  Which was great.  Until we hired someone who had finished his (I think it was a he) dissertation even younger than I had (he was British) and had his first book out long before mine.  And then we hired somebody else who had published more younger than I had.  And then somebody else.  And then somebody else.  Until I was no longer younger than everyone else, I wasn't even as precocious as most of my peers.  (Malcolm Gladwell has a few things to say about this, the precocious git.  I mean, insightful essayist.  Ahem.)

So, there they are, my envy demons.  My insecurities.  Let's see if naming them helps weaken them a bit.


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