The creeping green vines of jealousy sprout early in big families like mine. Sharing a bedroom, bathroom counter space, a bag of candy, or anything else can either make you or break you. There’s this insidious little concept of fairness that creeps into the vocabulary of even very young children. Where does it come from? Parents don’t teach it. Now, Forrest, look, your piece of cake isn’t nearly as big as your sister’s. Let mommy make it perfectly exactly measurably the same size. Let’s just weigh it on this little scale to be sure it’s equal and exquisitely-in-all-ways fair.
Maybe it’s those little labels we stick on ourselves that come from a phrase or word that may have been spoken only once out loud in our earshot: the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one, the athlete, the peacemaker. From then on, we perversely focus on the opposite, the adjectives that didn’t make it onto our particular self-label.
Once that habit takes hold, it’s easy to drift into other areas, the thing she has that you don’t, the skill or talent he’s got that you never learned. When I was about 10, a girl I knew owned the perfect storybook dappled pony that I coveted with all my being. Worse, she barely paid attention to it, rubbing salt into my ugly desirous wound. My want for that sweet pony quickly turned into open contempt for its owner. She was obviously mean, spoiled, hateful, and likely the spawn of Satan. None of that was true, of course, but pony-lust can be a burning coal of nasty.
In sixth grade it was my classmate Debbie’s boobs. She was approaching a C-cup and apparently owned only outfits that proved it. I was always a year younger than the kids in my class, which only exaggerated the differences. My chest was practically concave in comparison to hers. Nothing else about me appeared to be blooming except the thickening jealousy vines. For several years, my brother called me “mosquito bite,” a nickname he dreamed up with all the sensitivity of a bulldozer.
The trickle from the jealousy faucet was just so hard to turn off. It leaked into the fissures and crevices inside, those that were empty of all the things I wasn’t. Instead of being happy for other people’s successes, even very good friends and family, inside I was that pouty child shouting, “It’s not FAIR!” How come SHE gets to have a cool job and travel all over the world? Why does HER house look so cute and magazine-ish? SHE sits down and effortlessly writes beautiful resonating stories that get published immediately while I hunch over the keyboard chewing my fingernails to turn out spider puke.
It’s not a good place to be, that Planet Not Me. This planet is an exercise in constant comparison where the answer to everything is “not me.” Who’s skinny and perky and wears a size 6? Not me! Who’s got perfectly straight white teeth and no gray hair? Not me! Who can play a musical instrument and dance like J. Lo? You guessed it, not me. Being on this planet makes you feel low and bitter and makes you send wishes for small bad things to happen to these people you imagine lead magical, charmed lives. Just small things. I’m not a monster.
It turns you into an attention-craving comparison addict. You’re forever comparing your beginnings to other people’s middles, your insides to other people’s outsides. It’s apples and oranges, or more accurately, apples and chicken poop. The Neverland of Wishful Thinking (a.k.a., filtered look-who-I’m with-when-you’re-not Instagram shots, look-how-clever-status updates, and the look-what-you’re-not-doing on Pinterest) only makes it worse.
The good news is that you can leave that planet any time. Just hop right off and brush its dust from your feet. Certainly, there are plenty of things we are not and even more things that we cannot perform with finesse and verve like others. To dispel your inevitable idealized vision of myself, for instance, I’ll tell you that among other things, I do not eat kale, tofu, or sushi. I do not drink smoothies with or without added protein. I do not exercise thrice weekly, train for or run actual marathons, or use essential oils of any kind. In addition, my heels are not buffed, I do not wear sexy underwear on a daily basis. I sometimes let the laundry pile up, watch morning TV, and eat Girl Scout thin mints by the sleeve.
I do not know the difference between words like tulle and toile. I plant container gardens with sincere intentions that by the end of summer look like victims of radiation sickness. I occasionally make mac & cheese from a box–with powdered “cheese”–and serve it to my offspring. I have been known to fall asleep at night without cleansing, toning, and moisturizing.
I have come to own all of the Mess That Is Me, even embrace it. Instead of lamenting all of the “not me’s,” I have started hacking away at the vines (which over the decades have become Jack-and-the-Beanstalk worthy) and replanting little seeds of grace. This is how you disembark from Planet Not Me and get rid of the urge you had last week to key that girl’s car in some misguided attempt at karmic revenge for her great hair and adorable dress. My van sports a 0.0 sticker on its back window, revealing to the world my lack of half-marathon completion. I’ve had more people stop me to laugh about that in solidarity than if I’d had five 13.1’s plastered all over the back.
My seeds of grace are compliments received, spontaneous hugs from people who know me and hug me anyway, encouragement and appreciation gathered from here and there. Things that feed my soul and whisper you are enough. Sisters and girlfriends who get me and can sprinkle laughter and doses of humility into my day. It’s funny how we can go from judgy contempt in one moment to withered sniveling self-pity in the next. The whiplash of comparison is brutal.
Jealousy’s opposite virtue is contentment. And, sorry folks, but the only way to experience a virtue’s grace is to actually practice it. It may not be fair, but it’s enough.
Oh, and that scratch down the side of your car? It wasn’t me.