Conspicuous Coveting

As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed with their own passion. — Antisthenes (c. 445–365 B.C.)

The words envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, but a semantic distinction in the usage of these dispositions is worth noting. Envy generally refers to a feeling of desire to obtain another person’s advantages, success, or possessions; whereas jealousy is a feeling of resentment toward others who have something you feel should belong to you. The additional fear of losing what you have, or not getting what you want, can merge with feelings of discontentment when surveying life’s inherent unfairness. Humans are always in a state of acquisition or loss―moving toward or away from experiences, relationships, and objects. Possessions and relationships are often replaced as new situations and desires emerge, but the relinquishment everything we have owned and experienced is unavoidable.

Comparison/contrast methodology is not exclusive to creative writing and literary criticism; it can represent how we evaluate ourselves in relation to those around us. Most individuals have acted as their own actuary in terms of assessing a lifetime of possessions, relationships, and achievements. Estimates of self-worth are not created in a vacuum, and the influence of our neighbors, family, or cohorts can often be as powerful as cultural values and age norms. However, exposure to childhood trauma, developmental gaps, and unfortunate socioeconomic circumstances make it more difficult to thrive in a competitive world or feel secure in normative social atmospheres. The less you have, the more you notice how much others have already obtained.

Emotional and behavioral equanimity depend on calibrating individualized parameters of well-being, and deviation from one’s optimum level of functioning is usually where psychological dysphoria (an egodystonic state) and interpersonal conflict occurs. Although the capacity for envy and jealousy is built into our brain’s survival circuits, the degree and frequency of these dispositions is culturally exploited (i.e., consumer materialism). A life based on perennial begrudging is a misguided use of time and can lead to self-imposed torture. Continual comparison results in obsessive measuring under the guise of healthy competition. While coveting the accomplishments or life experiences of others can be a spur for productivity, it can also be a catalyst for anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment. Finding an operational equilibrium that is relatively immune to the toxic rivalry of dissimilitude is what remains imperative for establishing self-worth.