"Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone. There are people whose enormous blessings leave us wholly untroubled, even as others' negligible advantages become a source of relentless torment for us. We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be likewe envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals." Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books)
The way I see it, there is no sin as deadly as Envy. While Envy hasn't destroyed me entirely just yet, I can feel her eating away at my soul and tearing me up inside. Envy lurks in the corners of my mind and kneads her grimy little green knuckles together as she goads me into behaving in ways I wouldn't under different circumstances. Circumstances, for instance, where I'm thinking rationally. But envy is never rational.
I find comfort, though, in suspecting that everyone suffers from envy every now and then. She who says she doesn't lies. Unless she is completely inhuman or Angelina Jolie. We all go through moments where we turn ourselves into self-pitying have-nots.
It happens when the new J. Crew catalogue arrives. There, on page 114, with her flawless complexion and dazzling smile, is Envy winking at us. I wish I had her flat stomach, we think to ourselves.
She invades our love lives when she makes casual conversation with our boyfriend. Her presence alone makes us feel inadequate, mean, and mistrustful.
She stealthily creeps in at work. What starts out as a normal workday turns into a hellish round of resent-our-coworker when the boss commends the person who a second ago was our office confidant. Now she's our enemy.
We fall under Envy's spell all the time, anytime.
"It's just a feeling. I don't know," says Bette Davis in the classic All About Eve, trying to explain to her boyfriend, Bill, why she's been acting "oversensitive" lately. Davis (as aging actress Margo Channing) pretty much sums up what we all go through when jealousy decides to squat in our thoughts. In the film, Eve (Anne Baxter), a fresh-faced young actress, comes to New York with visions of following in Margo's footsteps. It becomes increasingly apparent that Eve is a diva-in-waiting, an opportunist Courtney Love would approve of. She desires what Margo hasthe public's applause ("waves of love"), a handsome fellow, glamorous friends, the admiration of her peersand she knows how to get it. She preys on Margo's weaknessher insecurity about her ageand uses youth and naiveté to almost destroy Margo's relationships and career. She tarnishes her reputation and loses some friends along the way, but she doesn't care. Eve achieves her dream of immortal stardom. Margo, meanwhile, once a proud and commanding woman, is transformed into a "hysterical screaming harpy." A powerless slip of her former self, only able to watch as Eve conquers what was once her to-be-envied life.
In the movie, a reference is made to another well-known tale of jealousy, ambition, and betrayal: William Shakespeare's MacBeth. "The general atmosphere is way MacBeth-ish. What has or is about to happen?" asks the playwright at Bill's birthday party in Eve. That's when Davis utters the famous line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." For MacBeth, his ride to Ego Falls begins with the three witches, who casually mix some ingredients together to get his mind prepared. Toss in a colleague's promotion and a determined wife and you know things are going to heat up. Lady MacBeth prods her husband into envy mode, and voila, MacBeth commits murder for the kingdom. Lady MacBeth preys on her husband's manhood to get him to do the deed. "When you durst do it, then you were a man;" she says. "And, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man." Don't you want this, baby?, she seems to be asking. A real man would. And then everyone dies. I told you Envy is deadly.
We all have a little place for Envy in our lives. Perhaps not the same grand scale of a Margo or a MacBeth, but we can just as easily succumb to her temptations. Something (or someone) comes along and, almost magically, changes us into raging, paranoid, spiteful, and overly dramatic lunatics. For me, Envy struck and knocked me out for several years. It happened unexpectedly, during a perfectly pleasant conversation with a friend from college. I hope to one day write a play about this sad period of my life. I plan on calling it, "Die, Renée Zellweger, Die."
My insidious bout of ill will towards Miz Z began when my friend Mary Jo (whose name has been changed to protect her innocence) came to visit me in New York City around 1996. One evening, sitting on the kitchen floor of my Queens apartment, we were discussing life, relationships, and whatnot when we got on the topic of careers. I had a desire to be an actressyes, very Eve of me. I described to my friend the work I was putting into learning the craft and the industry, spending hours doing vocal exercises, memorizing monologues, studying techniques in workshop after workshop, taking audition classes, etc., all in preparation for my big break. Mary Jo, trying her best to be supportive I guess, made the remarkable comment that her friend from high school, who just happened to be Miz Z ("I love Renée!" were her exact words), had achieved her success without ever having taken an acting class. "How lucky for her," I said. Meanwhile, behind my feigned smile, my blood was boiling and my skin was turning what I am sure was a pale shade of green.
From that moment on, I couldn't stand Renée Zellweger. No matter what she did, I hated her. I didn't want to see her movies. I didn't want to see her face in People magazine's "Star Tracks." I didn't want to hear about her dating Jim Carrey or Jack White or playing Meryl Streep's daughter or Ewan MacGregor's love interest. I didn't want to know about her doing all the things I wanted to be doing (except for dating Jim Carrey and Jack White, who aren't my type).
What added to the complexity of my situation was the fact that I found it hard to completely loathe Renée. When I grudgingly saw her movies, I enjoyed her performances. As Bridget Jones, I thought she was terrific. In Chicago, I found her quite charming, talented and skinny. I even enjoyed her in Down With Love, that movie I was supposed to star in with Ewan MacGregor. This made me feel as if I were betraying myself.
Her success was on a rocket-like trajectory while mine was on a steady flat line. She was winning Golden Globe awards and earning millions of dollars; I was sitting in a cubicle, filling out timecards, and contemplating why I wasn't Renée Zellweger. My years of Renée envy peaked when a coworker said that I reminded her of the actress. Was there no justice in the world? I grew up in Texas like she did. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, like she did. I had the same friend as her. And now I even look like her, and yet she has my life! Will this misery ever end?
Eventually, it did. After years of feeling like a failure because I wasn't an A-list actress like Renée Zellweger, I finally reached a point where I was not only ready to let go of Envy's hold over me, but I needed to let go of it before she strangled me into unconsciousness. It wasn't easy to give up a dream I had had since childhood. It took a lot of honest, rational introspection to finally realize I could have other dreams. I think my envy of Renée resembled what Eve, Margo and MacBeth went through. We all saw someone living the life we wanted, and they were people close to us. I saw Renée as my equal and, boy, I hated seeing my equal get ahead of me. But over time, I've learned that in the end it doesn't matter. When I step back from any situation where my jealous feelings start controlling my perspective, most of the time I discover I don't really want what I thought I did.
When Renée won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in March 2004, I didn't see myself on that stage. I saw the end of my dream. There was nothing more for me to achieve. Renée had done it all for me. I could now pursue my other dreams and live with new insight about Envy. And this year, when Renée married country singer Kenny Chesney, I could have cared less. But I do have to say, Thank goodness we don't have the same taste in men.
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