Friday, May 08, 2009


I'm not sure whether envy is actually the besetting sin of our profession--pride is an obvious challenger, with gluttony, wrath, and lechery making strong showings come conference time--but it may be the one that most of us wrestle with the most often. I know I do.

Envy isn't always destructive, and I've gotten better at limiting my envy to specific, tangible things: I envy my friends at other institutions the amount of travel funding they receive, or the frequency of their research leaves. Granted, this may not be a productive way to spend my time (although I suppose, for people who are not me, it could lead to redoubled efforts to conserve or use more wisely one's own time and money), but it's an expression of frustration with my institution's more limited resources rather than resentment of my friends for what they have.

I hope I'm smart enough not to envy most people their jobs, much less their lives; all jobs have trade-offs, of course, and it's impossibile to assess the quality of anyone's life from the outside. Some of my friends at research schools have more grading than I do, because when they teach lecture classes they don't get TAs (or they get only one for a class of 80). Others may indeed teach only a few dozen students a semester, but are swamped with orals or dissertation committees. When it comes to teaching/research balance, and to the health, happiness, and sanity of one's department, I've got it extraordinarily good.

Nevertheless, I still experience occasional fits of anger, frustration, or bitchiness that only later reveal themselves to have been partly motivated by envy. I'll be ranting about someone doing something SO UNACCEPTABLE or being SO CONDESCENDING, and then stop myself, wondering why I care so much--and realize that my anger was rooted in some presumption about how great that person's personal or professional life must be (with the allied presumption that, if I were in the offending party's place, I'd be much nicer or more generous).

As I say, it's something that I wrestle with, and nowhere more peculiarly than on those occasions when I've felt myself on the receiving end of other people's envy. Each time it's dawned on or been suggested to me that envy might be the reason a professional friend is suddenly making snide remarks or gossiping about me behind my back, my first reaction is to exclaim, "but why would anyone envy me?"--and then produce a list of all the ways in which that person's professional life is even better than mine.

I should know that that's just the way envy works--that since it's all fantasy and projection, I'm as reasonable an object as anyone--but it's disconcerting to think that someone might waste as much energy on me as I do on others.


life_of_a_fool said...

heh. I'm much the same way. I'm surprised when I realize that someone has noticed my existence, much less bothers to envy me. And you're absolutely right - there are so many contingencies involved, it's really hard to know who's "got it better," and so exceptionally a waste of our times to think about or envy it.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think this pretty much encapsulates why one should never, ever join Facebook. But for the most part, that epiphany usually comes too late.

heu mihi said...

Thank you for this post--because envy is something that I struggle with, too, and I'm really trying to get over it. As you say, every position has trade-offs, and most of those are invisible to the outside observer. My envy only makes me miserable, and when I consider that I actually enjoy my life/job for the most part, it seems clear that worrying about how much other people have is pretty pointless.

(But knowing that and living by it are two different things....)

Historiann said...

Great post. I've been amazed to discover that most of the scholars whom I admire also had their crap jobs, their tenure denials, their harassement/bullying issues, etc. (It is true that I am a tragically naive person!) When you talk to people you learn that everyone has had their issues, their battles, etc., so what looked enviable from the outside makes me think, "there but for the grace of Dog go I."

In the past few years, I've had the strange experience of seeing people who were hired in jobs I interviewed for (but wasn't offered) be denied tenure and/or have profound difficulties with the faculty they work with. I thought I would enjoy a little schadenfreudeliciousness, but since I've had my own "issues," news like this just makes me feel sad (and, "there but for the grace of Dog...")

Pamphilia said...

Brilliant post. And as you know, I hear you, And How. But I think this is a normal thing to experience when you're a decent human being. I guess that reveals how totally un-Christian I am because I don't think it's a sin of pride. Quite the opposite- in order to envy someone you have to hold yourself lower than her (or him). And so much of envy is about yearning for something. And yearning is a good thing- it helps us grow. Sorry to sound all touchy-feely, but I just don't buy the whole "envy is bad" thing.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Um, Flavia, have you been reading my diary? Because you've channelled a recurring theme in my life. Something that I am also trying to work on. It must have something to do with this crazy academic profession in which we all try to do so much on so little resources -- and because so much of what we do is judged comparatively (this journal v. that journal, this press v. that press, this fellowship v. no fellowship, etc.) -- it fosters envy and competition. But, hell, I am the original "if I only had X resources, I could get so much done" green-eyed monster.

Flavia said...

I'm glad it's not just me!

And Pamphilia: you may be a better person than I, but for me envy is always a deeply corrosive experience. It's true that envy can produce small side benefits: in obsessing over someone else's career, I've sometimes motivated myself to take professional risks--in fact, I can point to three or four lines on my C.V. that were inspired at least in part by a desire either to catch up to, or beat, Person X or Person Y. But on balance it's not worth it. For me envy isn't a productive emotion.

Now, I should say that there are people whom I admire and wish to emulate, and with whom I may feel a bit competitive--but that's not at all the same thing! (I suppose I sometimes use the word "jealous" in a very loose way to describe my feelings about such people, but I know the difference experientially/emotionally, even if my vocabulary doesn't entirely reflect that difference.)