Envy can be a helpful emotion. It can help you uncover things you secretly want that you’ve buried under a pile of self-imposed fears. Its unpleasant poke might be just enough to point you in the direction of your desires.
Of course envy can also be a petty bitch that shows up for absolutely no good reason whatsoever and ruins your ability to wholly enjoy the successes of people around you.
I’ve experienced envy of both kinds and am still learning to tell the difference. So while I’m in this amateur stage of interpreting my own feelings, there is only one truly reliable indicator I have – the lack of envy. In fact, for someone like me – a non-saint-like individual who covets all kinds of things – I believe lack of envy is probably the most telling emotion I have.
Last weekend I had dinner with a group of women I met in grad school. We were celebrating my friend’s new job as an assistant professor. Everyone in my company that evening had doctor in front of their name, worked as a professor or were about to, and did respected research in my field. I alone worked a 9-5 desk job with only a master’s behind my name, something that has nagged at me in the past.
As the main thing we have in common is our work, I knew that’s the direction our conversation would gravitate. Frankly, it was a prime opportunity for that green-eyed monster to pop up on my shoulder and start whispering things in my ear about how I too could be striving for more, reaching for the stars and <insert your favourite cliche about ambition here>.
But the monster never showed up. I found, a little to my surprise, that I could clearly see how academic careers fit these women I admire perfectly while at the same time not fitting me. I could see that while my job was less prestigious, it was also less demanding of my time and my energy, and that that was a compromise I was happy to make. What really set me apart at that table wasn’t the fact that I didn’t have a PhD – it was that I didn’t have the desire to get one.
I know I’m not in my dream job at the moment. I can’t stay still for years and years – I’ll need to face new challenges and carve out new paths. But that lack of envy – that’s something worth noting.
I have hit a bit of a writing lull over here at my little blog. It started off innocently enough – I was feeling down so I gave myself a break and focused on taking care of myself: reading for pleasure, going to the gym, eating yummy food, and lets be honest, vegging in front of the TV watching the backlog of Daily Shows and Colbert Reports we had built up on the DVR. But even once I started feeling more like myself, I was still trapped by all these precedents I had set like ‘I won’t write when I have a headache’ (which wipes out about 80% of my days in the last month). And ‘I shouldn’t write on sunny days because we will only have a handful more before five solid months of grey rain kick in.’ And ‘I shouldn’t write when I get home from work because then I neglect dinner and we end up eating pasta again.‘*
And once those precedents are set it becomes an uphill battle to break them.
So I’m easing back into my writing routine with someone else’s words, specifically this quote I just read as part of an interview on the Happiness Project from author Deborah Needleman (I’m also really behind on reading blogs obviously). It pinned down this vague concern I’ve had floating around in my head for the last little while as I’ve been reading about people’s life lists:
On a philosophical level I have always sought happiness above all else. I have not sought money or success or a career or a certain type of life, I have sought only happiness. I did not grow up having ambition or desire to do or be anything, nor did I have any particular skills or talents or passions. I had a hard time projecting myself into the future or imagining or desiring anything for the future. I just simply sought happiness… Now I am ambitious, but even still, I’m ambitious to be the best I can, make good things, not to reach any level or tick off any box.
This might sound strange to you, because it does to me, but I don’t recall having any specific long-term dreams or goals for my life when I was younger. I never dreamed about a wedding let alone a marriage. I didn’t picture my future children or my career. I never made a ‘things I want to accomplish by <insert milestone age here>’ list. I never had a list of places I want to visit, or activities I want to try. I still don’t.
This sounds like the makings of an aimless kind of life, or maybe a life an autopilot. When I realized how few specific dreams I could actually recall having I wondered what in the world was wrong with me. And that remains to be answered, but the fact is, if you plotted my life against someone who had a really ambitious life-list full of goals, I don’t actually think you’d be able to tell which was which (unless their goal was winning the Nobel Prize or American Idol or something).
I guess that makes me lucky** – thus far I have gotten a life I’m pretty content with along with good scenery on the way without ever drawing a map; I’ve just explored the paths in front of me to find the one that I like best and sometimes forged my own when the existing ones didn’t work. It sounds haphazard but it never felt like it. Reading this quote reminded me that I do always have a guiding force with me – the search for happiness and satisfaction in my life.
A few times now I have thought about trying to make some sort of life-list, even mentally, but each time I do I seem to hit on the realization that I still have no idea what to put on it. And maybe that’s ok. Some people have specific ideas of what they want to accomplish in their lives and that’s fantastic because recognizing those goals will bring them closer to reality, but for me – I might just have to tell you when I get there.
Do you have a life list (either a literal list or a mental one)? If so, was this something that came naturally to you or something that you pushed yourself to consider?
*I’m typing this as the wonderful smell of pesto wafts from the kitchen where John is cooking it up with pasta and some shrimp. Tomorrow we’ll eat something not entirely composed of fat and white flour, but today I write.
**I should specify that I did always bust my ass along the way – the luck comes in it all working out.
I have been feeling off lately, though it has taken me a while to register this because on a small scale it just looked like a bad mood – unsettled, quick to anger, sad. I kept blaming it on sleep deprivation, then PMS, then on having a cold. But I have run out of excuses while the cloud remains. After a while, it’s not a bad mood anymore – it’s a bad state of mind.
I have always disliked clutter, but lately controlling it has become an obsession. Suddenly all the quirks and annoyances of our small space feel unbearable even though we’ve already lived with them relatively contentedly for two years. The pile of crap that unfailingly grows in the downstairs entryway no matter how many times we tackle it now feels more meaningful than just some temporary clutter waiting to find a home; it feels like a judgement on the management of our lives. For the past few weeks I have been in a rampage of clearing out old things and re-arranging the remaining things into order but it never seems enough. It never gives me the satisfaction I’m hoping to find.
John and I work as a couple because he is the relaxed to my temperamental, the laid-back to my anxiety. So I try to be patient when he procrastinates on the housework and when it feels like I will always have to be the one to take the initiative to see things done. But lately it too feels so much bigger, like I am supposed to be the sole architect of our lives. This is not a role John ever assigned me, nor is it the reality, but it is a heady responsibility to carry even in my imagination. So when the laundry gets left in the washer once again, I rant and I rage in retaliation.
I have always tended to be a bit sensitive when it comes to perceived slights by others (of course always keeping it to myself like a good stoic Finn should), but lately I feel like I’m not able to handle these feelings rationally like I usually would. If someone cancels plans or doesn’t reply to an email, instead of just letting it roll off my back I feel the need to put up an emotional fence. Show them I don’t care, it’s fine, I’m too busy to answer you too. But my attempts at emotional distance are just leaving me feeling sad and dejected.
I have had a couple of bouts of mild depression in my life. Fortunately they have been relatively short, self-limiting and not debilitating, but enough for me to catch a glimpse of that world. That’s not where I am now, at least I don’t think so. I’m not sure where I am, but in this world it’s not that everything is grey and bleak – it’s that everything is so black and white. Right or wrong. Good or bad. I’m missing the shades of grey where most of real life resides.
Any armchair psychiatrist might be quick to point to the fact that I am turning 30 in ten days, but I really do think I am all right with this milestone. I suspect this has less to do with changes and more to do with how stagnant my life feels at the moment. I’m not striving for any new goal, nor do I really have the ambition to, but the guilt of feeling like I should still follows me. I feel like I am wasting my time because I’m not striving for a promotion at work, because I don’t have a hobby I’m passionate about, because I have no idea what the next step in my career is, because I like to stay home and cozy up on the couch after dinner instead of keeping busy, because my idea of a perfect weekend night is sharing a meal and a bottle of wine with my husband instead of going out to experience something new together.
All things I could work on fixing if only I could distinguish between what I actually want and what I think I should want, between laziness and contentedness.