I have become fascinated, recently, with jealousy. My own jealously. Jealousy as set apart from envy, which, in the way I translate the two words, is the difference between wanting what someone else has – envy – and wanting what someone else is – jealousy.
Jealousy is dark and shadowy and for many years I knew that it was not something I was allowed to feel. If it sent its tendrils out of the darkness, it needed to be stuffed down, reburied, denied the light. But in digging recently, tentatively, into the dark and shadowy parts of myself, I’ve uncovered jealousy over and over again. And slowly it has become a friend. Not only a friend, but even a mentor and a guide. A bright shining arrow saying “This. I need this.”
Who am I jealous of? As I started to pay attention, a slow trail emerged of writers, artists and creative people who use their voices, who take risks; of people who put their ideas forward again and again; of people who step forward and lead others through transformative processes; of people who find a balance between their inner and outer worlds.
If I put together a collage of my jealousies, I would create a picture of who in each moment I secretly long to be; of what parts of myself I wish to uncover, of what the next steps need to be, if I’m willing to take them. It’s breathtakingly clear.
Other jealousies, however, are darker and more complicated. I spoke my shining arrow theory of jealousy out loud to a dear friend recently, but then concluded, dismissively: “It only works for some things. Not for others, of course. Not when I find myself jealous of women who are young and beautiful. That’s not something I can move towards becoming more of.”
She thought for a moment and said: “Maybe it is an arrow too, though. Maybe it is an arrow telling you that you need to work on self-love.”
I have been rereading a couple of books by Brené Brown recently. She writes about vulnerability and about shame. Shame – the feeling that we are not okay, that we are all wrong – is something which we repress and keep buried in order to present ourselves the way we think we should be. Women and men have different triggers of shame in our culture, she writes.
Jealousy has sometimes been sitting unpleasantly in my insides in recent years, and perhaps all of my adult life. Like any shame when it is most poisonous, it was something I usually tried to stuff down. Reading Brown on shame is a breath of relief. The biggest trigger of shame in women – still, and maybe even more than ever – is not being “thin, young, or beautiful enough,” she writes. Not meeting the cultural standard of physical perfection is at the top of the list of all the ways in which women fault themselves for not being the perfect beings they have learned to believe they should be.
On the surface, I have known this for oh so many years. I still have my worn copy of The Beauty Myth in my basement, underlined and marked by my teen self, triumphantly declaring my rebellion against all of that. But the thing about those shadow emotions, when we don’t own them, when we don’t admit to them, is that they have their corrosive effect on us even when every rational part of our being fights what they stand for.
Yet, there are cultural standards of beauty, which we can perhaps all agree are cruel and repressive, and then there is my own eye that is attuned to colour, form, symmetry, the perfection of line. When I can’t find those in myself – and sometimes I do – it hurts those sensibilities; it makes me cringe. My judgment is both external and internal. It’s complicated.
What is emerging for me now when I contemplate all of this is gentleness. Since that conversation with my friend a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about self-love. One day last week I sat late at night and watched a wisp of smoke on a small piece of sage that I was burning, and the word that came from its graceful rising curve was gentleness.
There is a verse in a poem by John O’Donohue, A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted, that I have been returning to recently, turning it over and over in my mind for comfort:
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
I will be gentle with myself. Self-love, like gratitude, is subversive in our culture.
Jealousy in some way always points to what is buried – our buried dreams, our buried shame – and so it is a fascinating emotion, a telling one, one that we can follow the threads of to find out the secret pathways of our inner maps, to discover where we have been lost or led astray and where we need to find our way out again.
I am allowing myself to dig up those inner maps right now. It’s about time, at forty, to uncover what is still buried underground or, as I wrote last week, to dig up the roots and look at them under the light. Dig, but gently, with respect and gentleness for those parts of myself that I found necessary for so many years to keep buried. With compassion for the ways in which I sometimes try to protect myself from external hurts, and only succeed in hurting myself. There is freedom and grace in allowing light and air into those buried places.