THE ENVY TRAP
“OH PLEASE tell us more about that beach in Bali…” When every status update makes us wretched.
Envy is hard to admit to. It is nasty. It is shameful. It is first-world problems; unforgiveable, really. It’s hard to think of it in positive terms, to see envy as motivation, rather than bitterness.
But the thing about middle age is that it requires you to understand your situation. To think about where you are. And how do you know where you are? You compare your life to the one you think you should have. The one you thought you would have, the life you imagined when you were younger. Where did it go, that life you were designed for?
Your lost life filters through the life you have now, casting too-bright light over your daily existence. It makes your real life seem tawdry and small. You feel not ‘I could have been a contender’ but ‘I am still a contender’ If only all these other fuckers could see it.
Where did it go, that life you were designed for?
Or perhaps you’ve hidden your lost life in memory boxes stuck in the attic. You catch your lost life, sometimes, when you flick through old photos, or stumble across TV broadcasts of vintage pop performances. And your heart wants to burst out of your chest, as though you were the same age as when you first saw those gods, those alien beings who sang your feelings and changed your life into something special and meaningful. There are TV channels specifically designed to engender this reaction.
The pain of knowing you are now too old to beat sporting records, too out-of-date for your talent to make any impression on the young people who are driving culture, that pain might be ridiculous, but it is still pain.
And, of course, we live in an envious society. Capitalism has built entire industries around envy. I look at the young models with their long, slim limbs and I wonder how much it would cost to get that skin, those legs. Even though I know those particular assets don’t exist for anyone over 25. Even though I couldn’t afford them anyway.
One of the things I notice is that in conversations with other people there’s almost always a status element. It’s disguised, but it’s there. So if someone says they’re busy they can’t cope, they’re really saying, I’m important because I’m indispensable. Going out to gigs, getting hammered? Still relevant, not old. Kids picked for a sports team? Great parenting, plus talent passed down the generations.
Your peer group parades their happy lives and, if you’re not feeling great, you compare your inner world with their outer version of theirs.
We are all trying to tell other people something important about ourselves, and that important thing is how well we’re doing, according to how we want to be defined.
Status, we love it. On Facebook, when we write about what we’re doing, we’re offering a Status Update. And we edit what we post, consciously, unconsciously, because status is wrapped around our identity. We all compare.
Status Update: If you compare yourself to people you’ve known for some time – school friends, clubbing mates, old work friends – you will be somewhere in the middle. Very few of those friends will be properly successful.
How we feel has nothing to do with how we appear. We read other people’s exterior signals to check what’s going on underneath. Instagram and Facebook let you know exactly how well you’re doing, because you can see how well everyone else is doing. Your peer group parades their superior exteriors, their happy lives and, if you’re not feeling great, you compare your inner world with their outer version of theirs.
Envy will ooze from these comparisons. When you’re happy, you’re happy that other people are too. When you’re not, then you’re resentful. If we can get happy in middle age, our envy will go and we’ll be able to live our own lives.
By Miranda Sawyer, author of Out of Time (Fourth Estate)