As an awkward, lonely, and somewhat homely adolescent boy, I viewed the couples I started to see around at that age with a mixture of fascination and envy. I genuinely felt that being part of a couple was a thing that could and would never happen for me.
It eventually did, but, not with any marked degree of success.
I was kind of a mess.
By the time I got into my twenties, I was entering into a series of relationships of varying lengths, none lasting more than half a year, and most, more like half a minute. I would go through long fallow periods of dating no one, and the envy I felt when seeing other couples returned.
I got to thinking about this after watching a recent episode of This Is Us. There, they show Kate, as an adult, going on a retreat meant for couples with her mother, because her husband backed out at the last minute. The show did a good job of portraying her seeing seemingly happy couples everywhere, although it was never said. But they got the point across.
Envy is an emotion I come back to thinking about again and again, because I think it is a far bigger part of human motivation than it is usually given credit (blame?) for. Boredom and envy are both like that: huge contributors to why we are how we are, but typically downplayed for more glamorous motivations like greed, lust, or the desire for power.
It is through the mechanism of envy that a lot of people end up resenting other people for being either happy, fortunate, or both. It isn’t enough to wish we were more happy or fortunate, we want other people to be less so – which is crazy, by the way.
Just walking across campus,
You see them reading there:
The happy couple on the lawn
As if without a care –
And anger comes, but it’s not right:
That twistedness we get to —
For envy’s anger borne from sorrow
We will not
Competitiveness, by the way, is arguably a type of preemptive envy. We hate other people having things we don’t to such a degree that we organize our whole existence around it. This is the largest single motivating force that athletics has: it’s not the “pursuit of excellence” — although that may be a by-product — it’s the pursuit of making sure you are object of envy rather than a participant in it.
Competition is a very real part of life: we compete for attention, for dates, for jobs, and so on. However, one can’t help but notice that we tend to turn things into competitions that aren’t. Below is an actual conversation I had with someone online about two years ago.
Owen: I’ve been listening to some Orchestral music by Norman Dello Joio. I really like it.
Friend: Why do people always talk about Aaron Copland when they talk about American composers? There are a lot of good ones, like Dello Joio, who never get a hearing.
Owen: But he did get a hearing, I’m listening to his music now. And why can’t I like both?
Friend: Copland is SO overrated. I can’t believe he’s your favorite.
Owen: I didn’t say… oh, never mind.
Competitiveness in the arts is understandable, of course, even if its often coarse and catty expression can be discouraging. After all, attention is a type of popularity contest, and we all know how those go.
“Poorly for most of us”, is the answer, for you popular people out there.
Oh, how I envy you.