The Devil’s two most powerful tools in this world are vanity and envy.
I’ve written so much about jealousy and envy, I thought I had nothing left to say. But I do.
I know that technically speaking, the terms are not identical. Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is fear of losing what you have.
But the premise is the same: Your perception is, you fear you have something to lose, and somebody else is responsible for that fear.
Envy has been a powerful thread in my life. No matter how “enlightened” I get, I struggle with it. Either I’m preoccupied with someone else having more skill/good fortune/attention, or someone is giving me crap because they envy me.
Seems like much of the trouble in the world is based on envy, from my own small woes to those of great nations.
If someone copies your work, part of that is because they see you have skill/success/attention/money/whatever. They think if they simply make the same work, they will have that, too.
If someone is envious of your artwork, and they are in a position of power over you (a juror for a show, a standards committee member), they can make life miserable for you in countless small and subtle ways.
If they are a peer or a friend, it’s even worse. Suddenly, everything you say or do draws a sarcastic remark, a biting comment, a moment of ridicule. A once-promising friendship warps into something sad and rueful.
When I allow myself to envy, it’s just as bad. Trust me.
But the real sin in envy is not in the behavior itself, or the misery it causes.
It’s because by giving in to it, we give away our power.
We give away everything beautiful, unique and wonderful that’s in us. We destroy the gifts that are given us–our talent, our perseverance, our joy–and turn them into dust.
Earlier this month, I almost left my dojo for another that seemed more compatible. I thought I would join a school that was less physically demanding, more sympathetic to my aging body.
I talked with my head instructor; he reluctantly agreed my reasons were sound. But he said I had to let the head of my school know.
I have one thing I do well that I’m proud of. I make the hard phone calls. I arranged to meet with Mr. R in person.
What happened then was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
I will make a long story short–this was a complex situation, with a long history, involving many talented, good people. Much of it is personal and not tangent to the story, so I won’t go into it.
But the heart of this story is, Mr. R quoted that opening line to me. He told me when he’d heard it, and why.
Envy was at the root of the long, sad story that had left so many people deeply unhappy, and not at peace with themselves.
That’s when I realized that another, deeper reason for me leaving was not simply the tough work-out. The real reason was, I was envious of others in the class. I felt stupid having to step out when things got hard. Others were moving ahead, and I was not.
That was bad. Because I had lost track of my true reasons for practicing Tae Kwon Do.
I’d forgotten that my practice is always, for myself.
Not to be better than so-and-so, or to get to my next belt, or have my teacher praise me.
I must practice because I love what Tae Kwon Do can teach me.
I must practice because I love the discipline of trying to be my best.
I must practice for the joy of mastering something–sometimes in a horribly pathetic long drawn-out process, to be sure–to get good at something simply because I keep doing it, no matter what.
I, and I alone, am responsible for pacing myself within the class. If I can’t do sets of fifty push-ups anymore, then I must break it down into sets of 25, or 20. Or seven, if that’s all I can squeeze out.
If I can’t run fast laps on the hard floor, then I can run slow laps on the mat. Or walk, if that’s all my body can handle that day.
And there is no need to feel embarrassed when I need to step up or slow down. Because 1) it’s not anyone else’s place to judge me, and 2) I must stop judging myself.
Can you see the implications for our art?
I have quoted Martha Graham’s quote many times, but I’ll do it again. And I see I’ve lost the copy I used to hang prominently on my bulletin board, so I’ll print it out again for me, too:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. …
No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
from The Life and Work of Martha Graham[
Everyone always has there own reasons for their behavior. If they are envious of you, it has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you can do to deflect it, or control it, either. Sometimes we have the luxury of removing ourselves from the situation, sometimes we can’t.
Understand that envy is based on fear. Fear that there is not enough love, or not enough attention, or not enough money, or not enough opportunity for all of us. Fear creates a little death. It takes the joy of living away from us.
We can only manage ourselves. The only thing we can change is how we respond. The only thing to do is to keep doing what we’re supposed to do, on the very highest level.
We can only try to make our decisions out of love, and hope, instead of fear.
We can only keep making the unique work, the art, that is in our hearts.
I have had the support of amazing people in my life, who have helped me internalize that. I may need a refresher course from time to time, but I always get back to the same place, the place of inner strength and conviction.
This is my gift to the world, the work of my hands, the work of my words, the work of my heart.
It is all we really have, but it is astonishingly powerful.
And when we truly understand and embrace that, we are astonishing, too.