If you grew up in a Nigerian home and do not have what I will call ‘Foundational Envy’, then go find your parents wherever they are, hug them tight and say a loud ‘thank you!’ And if unfortunately, they are no longer here with us, fill your heart with mountain sized gratitude and offer it up to them. You are one of the saved.
A typical Nigerian upbringing ensures from day one you are aware that friends, family, neighbors and generally anyone in close proximity (within your age group) is a potential foe. This is because you are constantly being compared to one or the other. If you ‘lack’ manners, you are compared to your well mannered cousin. If you do not do well in school, you are compared to a neighbor or parents friend’s child who did well. And I pity you if they are financially less fortunate and do not have the opportunities/privileges given to you. Sometimes this comparison doesn’t even have true merit. And by this I mean, you maybe came 5th out of 45 and the neighbor’s child maybe came 2nd out of 30. No one does the math to asses that based on numbers, you are pretty much on the same spot, 2nd sounds better than 5th and that’s all there is to it. So your holidays are pretty much spent doing time in your room surrounded by books.
Okay, so let’s say you survived Foundational envy by virtue of your upbringing, but do you think you have survived Environmental envy?
Environmental envy is the one you encounter on the daily constant by those struggling with Foundational envy. If you’ve lived in this environment then all your interactions are done within it. And there is no way, you haven’t at some point worked with, lived with and probably been in a relationship with someone suffering with Foundational envy; you do have relatives right?
Unfortunately, constantly brushing up against this thing heightens your sense of awareness of it. And unless some force field is shielding you or you are drenched in the love of Christ, slight traces of envy-like behavior might show up every now and then in your behavior. Like refusing to compliment an individual who refuses to compliment you (just a mild example).
Like all things conceptually meant for good, this ‘getting an individual to do better as a result of comparison with their successful peers’ has turned out to be one of the most damaging and unproductive techniques. And its uselessness is increased by the confusing message that one is meant to always be there for their family, kin and the entire village.
The ‘wise’ forefather that came up with this concept obviously did not think it through.
How do I support someone whose success means my life is immediately going under a microscope, and misery might ensue shortly thereafter? How is that suppose to work I wonder? Most importantly, how do I honestly love, encourage and help validate another’s life purpose when them succeeding at it according to some measure automatically means I am failing at mine?
These are questions those of us who want to do better probably grapple with daily.
In questioning myself, I have come to understand that understanding the function of envy is the best way to get over it and eventually be unaffected by it. Paradoxically, it starts with measuring things against themselves.
So therefore, Envy helps us measure:
Our true conditioning. By this I mean our propensity to love or even our understanding of it. I will be bold to say that envy shows just how much you have encountered love in your life. Have you slightly brushed up against it or truly felt its incredible powers? It is true books, philosophers and scientists have characterized love into different forms; but for the purpose of understanding envy, we will sum them all up into one and plainly call it LOVE.
There is a wide range of ways we display envy but I will simplify it into low end and high end which are:
a) Twinge envy: This is just a slight twinge when you see someone that has something you really want for yourself. It does not linger or last and can almost pass for wishful thinking. This is on the low end and inversely means you do have a lot of love in your heart and life but you can only claim this when it is measured against someone you know getting something you really want.
What to do: Further squash that tiny twinge by practicing magnanimity. You can call that person up or send them a message congratulating them. Take it a bit further and wish them more success. Admit also that you would love to encounter their good fortune as well. Can be difficult if you think to hard about doing it but trust me, it is great for wearing the edges off envy.
b) Volcanic envy: It is on the all consuming high end. You are obsessed by what is going on in this persons’s life. Thoughts of something wrong happening to them excites you; and sometimes you go out of your way to make sure something bad happens. My friend, I’m sorry to say this but the love in you can probably be measured with a teaspoon. And no, while we can say some people are a bit difficult to love and I should not generalize; this measure is solely based on your ability to acknowledge another person’s success.
What to do: As a Christian, I will say, if you believe in God, pray hard and confess it ALL. What usually happens is, you open the door to peace that brings knowledge and understanding. This helps you give out love that you were once incapable of and the more you give, the more you receive. And envy will soon become…” what envy?”
If you do not believe in God, the only thing I can say is you may have to fake it till you make it. Painfully acknowledge the envious feeling and immediately work in the opposite direction before it catches up and consumes you. With time your natural response might just be to be happy and gracious in acknowledging someone else’s success. Sorry if this is not too helpful, my filter and response to situations is the bible, anything outside of it is my human intuition and knowledge.
Who runs our lives: us or society? The truth is every society has it rules and guidelines and they can be pronounced, nuanced or imagined. And there are these guardians that try to tell us what is right or wrong and in this case, who is successful or not. This is only a problem if you allow it to become one.
We all have the ability to question whatever society puts on us and whether it aligns with our core beliefs. But because of the normalization of society’s expectations, we somehow forget we can and sometimes we must question them.
We envy people that a little look into their lives will makes us feel nothing but pity. A dishonest politician’s child might make you envious because society claims being able to effortlessly afford stuff is success. But would you really sleep well knowing you are the sole cause of another’s hunger filled sleepless nights? probably not. Moreover, some of our most satisfying achievements were the ones we worked hard and had to overcome many obstacles to get.
What to do: Question every expectation put on you. Think for yourself and define your own measure of success. Make sure this measure is not a low-key escape from working out your true potential because you will not escape the regrets this will cause you at the end of your life.
Envy helps us tell the difference between Aspiration and Admiration.
The difference: To put it simply, admiration just likes what it is inspired to like in another person. If its a skill, talent or ability, admiration is more than okay with its existence because it provides something to be valued.
Aspiration on the other hand comes packed with motivation and ambition to be like the individual inspiring it.Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
With admiration, we might borrow a mannerism, life philosophy or sense of style from the individual but with aspiration, we see ourselves becoming like the individual, achieving what they have achieved and secretly wanting to surpass them.
Unfortunately for us, thanks to the first mentioned Nigerian bred foundational envy, we do not have the emotional construct to aspire to anyone especially our peers without some very negative side effects.
It is easy to aspire, even with this upbringing, to be like a Scarlet Johanson for example. This is because the physical, cultural and psychological distance between us helps our construct. Your life will never be compared with hers in the same merciless way even though she is your peer.
But to aspire to be like your successful next door neighbor, forget about it. Within a short time, no matter how hard you try to keep it clean, resentment along with envy will start brewing. You both grew up in the same soil and sandbox, and even if you are not told, you somehow wonder about your own short comings. Then you resent that somehow your neighbor was spared, then the blame game begins and in the end, you will be lucky if anyone takes any responsibility.
What to do: If you can tell that you do not want their life but appreciate its existence, then this is admiration. And the best way to build on it envy-free is to show the person you admire them and go further to wish them the best. But be careful that you do not start veering into the creepy shadowy territory of being a mindless copy cat.
When you badly want to be at the spot they are in, that is aspiration. This is generally not a bad thing but take some time to examine your true motives. Is it just because of the success it brings to them or does it align with your own life’s purpose. Hint: When you picture your success throwing dust in the face of theirs as oppose to the sense of fulfillment it brings you; it time to take a step back. You will have to do the work in finding your own true purpose. Hint: It is usually located in your natural abilities and your life story (the experiences both good and bad)
At the end of the day, Envy is something that should bring us to self examination not self sabotage. Because the more we focus on bettering ourselves, the less likely we are to worry about another person’s success.
Instead, we might just have the clarity to see it for what it is and in time we may be able to change this false script of silently competing with each other.
It will be a great day indeed when our peers stop being potential enemies but fellow comrade in arms. A great day indeed.
Featured Image via Flickr