There are some emotions and human actions in which I don’t allow myself to partake. I usually don’t follow the herd. I don’t get caught up in what’s popular at the moment, no matter how many cool people in my life are riding the wave. I don’t build someone up in order to tear them down. And I don’t allow myself more than a flash of envy or jealousy.
Sometimes, these choices are rather easy, like with me having never watched an episode of Scandal or Empire. Sometimes, the choice to not virtually excoriate someone is difficult, given the narcissisms and moralisms that make up American culture. Sometimes, my path less traveled is one that has become easier over time. With jealousy, I’ve learned over the past thirty-five years that it’s a waste of time, neurons, and quantum energy to peer into the lives of those allegedly better off.
But this was hardly an easy process. I had so many reasons to be jealous when I was a preteen and teenager. My middle school and high school Humanities years were ones of constant, albeit momentary, jealousy. I was envious of classmates whose parents made more in a month than my Mom made working all year at Mount Vernon Hospital. I felt envy whenever I saw a classmate chow down on a smorgasbord of a lunch every day, especially on all the days I couldn’t eat because I either didn’t have the money to buy lunch or because the Hebrew-Israelite no-pork rule prevented me from eating the Friday grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Jealousy would come along when I’d see the mini-cliques of former Grimes and Pennington Elementary classmates getting along like the best of friends. Or, when my classmates would come to school wearing the latest and best of ’80s fashion while I walked around in sneakers with holes in the bottoms.
These first bouts with jealousy quickly turned inward toward my own insecurities and inadequacies, and outward toward my parents’ inability to do anything to make my life better materially. For years after the shock of preteen and early adolescent jealousy, I never saw myself as worthy of my classmates, not even worthy enough to befriend someone whose life, though maybe materially blessed, might have been unstable in other areas.
My first realization of seeing myself as being jealous, though, was toward the end of tenth grade at Mount Vernon High School. That’s when my secret first love Wendy and the contrarian one JD had begun to date. I didn’t feel this sense of love or weird emotional trepidation regarding Wendy by the time we were in tenth grade, though. I sensed as early as seventh grade this particular eventuality. No, I was more jealous of the reality that Wendy and JD could connect with each other in a way that I knew for me was beyond my reach. I didn’t really have any friends, so dating would’ve been like building a bridge over the Pacific Ocean by comparison.
But I learned something as well. Because theirs was an interracial relationship, I got a first-row seat to the stares, the whispers, and the occasional ignorant-ass comments from the other high schoolers about them dating. Seeing that, hearing that, made me aware of the fact that jealousy is a dangerous emotion, and give the life of deficits I had to make up, I didn’t have time or gray matter to waste in the matter of woe-is-me-as-outsider in 1985 or in the foreseeable future.
A year later, when I sensed on some level that some of my classmates were actually jealous of me, I balked at the idea. I thought, “I have nothing that anyone should be jealous of.” To me, this was literally true. With some of the cool kids literally laughing at me as I walked by them in the hallways, I couldn’t foresee a situation in which anyone would ever be jealous of me.
And yet I was wrong. My academic success, my fierce insistence to fight isolation by making myself independent of fads, trends, and conventional wisdom, had already made me a target of other’s envy. It wasn’t until the summer after I graduated when a co-worker at my General Foods job, one who was one year behind me at Mount Vernon High School, cut through the psychology for me. Erika cleared up so many things for me about the nature of friendships, relationships, and jealousy. I owe her big time for that, then and now.
Nearly thirty years later, and I am still surprised when I discover that someone is jealous of me. Really, I am. I guess it’s because I operate by the moment-of-envy rule. Meaning that I allow myself to feel jealous, but only for a moment, and remind myself of my own path, my own destination, and the work I must do to get there. After all, I don’t really want someone’s else job, promotion, salary, status, car, or house. That’s their life, and only God truly knows if their life would be one I’d want to have. And then I move on, knowing that the green grass on the other side of the tracks can often obscure the Love Canal underneath. I move on, because there’s always more work to do, for me, my wife, and my son. I move on, because after all these years, that’s all I know how to do.