Emily Danforth, the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, made a humorous mention at a recent writer's workshop of the veiled or not so veiled envy among writing friends about each other's "success" or lack thereof. I couldn't help but laugh about the true chord she had struck.
If we as writers, artists or simply human beings have not experienced envy—I wonder whether we have been attentive to our inner voices and tumultuous feelings regarding the often challenging path of creating and attempting to share our creations. Envy is that emotion that bubbles up when a person wants or desires what another has; seeing another's achievement, recognition or success and wondering, "Why not me?"
The world and work of writers and artists is ready soil to allow envy to spring up. How does one judge the quality or value of a written piece or artistic endeavor? We all like different types of writing, different types of art. How do you determine the worth of something? Does its price reflect value, the quantity sold or actually getting published, or are these just measuring stones based on what a few people like, what the gatekeepers want or what popular opinion is—made popular by whom?
Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, mentions "green-eyed jealousy." Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably, each associated with the color green. In past history, green complexion, such as when one is pale and sickly was associated with fear, ill humor and illness. Envy can at times cause emotional pain, lack of self-worth and lower self-esteem. Some have described two types of envy; malicious and benign. Benign envy has been proposed to be a positive motivational force. An envious person can become unhappy or as Bertrand Russell suggested, envy can be used as a driving force to create a more just social system.
An interesting, related topic is a study about gender norms and modesty which inhibits women from promoting themselves or their accomplishments. A published study noted in a recent issue of the Bozone newspaper (Feb. 1, 2014, Vol. 21, No. 3) by Jessi L. Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University and Meghan Huntoon, MSU student, looked at cultural norms regarding women promoting their own accomplishments and the discomfort they experience in expressing their abilities.
"Society disapproves of women who are perceived to be bragging about themselves," Smith states. Conversely men who brag about their accomplishments are perceived as confident and capable. The study authors suggest that people in authority positions need to create environments that enable women to promote their talents as a normal action. Since cultural shifts take time, Smith suggests that meanwhile people should emphasize the abilities of their female friends and colleagues to other individuals or groups.
Unfortunately, women who speak about their abilities are seen as arrogant and domineering and men are seen as confident and experienced. Is this a hidden barrier to sharing our artistic potential?
Our choice, even when we experience the twangs of envy, is to follow our art, our craft, our passion - giving it our best, growing and learning to be better at what we choose to do, and also encouraging others on their path, with their successes, striving to help create a more just and favorable climate to recognize the talents of a variety of people. Greater freedom can be created when we have an eye to the inequitable norms and expectations we put on women and develop avenues to support the wellspring of each other's gifts.
We are always left with the old meditative wisdom; feel it, recognize it, name it, let it be, and not react based on our feelings, neither physical nor mental, but still act. In this we become one with wu wei, the non-doing action of the Tao itself, the source of all good.