Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Last month, I wrote a piece on what I termed Freudensorge, suffering at another's joy. There's another emotion that has crept up on me lately, one which I believe has power to teach, to reveal hidden desires, to uncover the secrets of our longing: Envy.

Around the same time, I penned the post mentioned above, I received an email from a friend of mine, letting me know that his long awaited book on a subject close to both of our hearts had been published. I wrote him back just after the new year, to say congratulations, and thanks for keeping me informed of his doings, and about conferences and such, and to let him know that I've dropped out of the rat-race for a faculty post. He responded, encouraging me to keep up with my research: "Hang in there, and keep in touch." He suggested he'd like to send me a copy of his book (the first book I know of where my work is cited), and asked what address to send it to. Yesterday, it arrived, inscribed "with warm regards". It means a lot to me.

He's a fine scholar and researcher. I envy him. He received a PhD from Harvard about 10 years ago. Immediately he was offered a job at a research institute, where he's been ever since. I envy the relative ease of his path. I don't know all the details; perhaps I fool myself. Most off all, I envy that he was able to produce a dissertation in a pathbreaking area (very close to my own interests), and that he has been able to spend his professional career, working in that area, researching, publishing, presenting on the subject, all the while fully supported in doing so.

When I was young, I dreamt of being a poet, lying under trees by day, reflecting on the world in verse, and having a patron who sustained me in this enterprise. But I grew up... a bit. I have dreamt of the life of the mind. I had hoped in a PhD that I would be able to pursue something new, something true, something remarkable. I'm proud of the paper I submitted to my committee, which garnered me those three letters. It was a start.

I have dreamt of the ability to spend a career being me, pursuing questions that struck my mind as worthwhile to pursue, asking questions that have not been asked before, or finding answers that others had not found. I envy the ability to do those things.

And what prevents me? What holds me back? The easy answer is money. We need money to live. And yet, for now, we have enough. We have enough to sustain us likely for a couple years without worry.

I think of Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey. They might have disappeared many years ago. But they did not. I do not envy them their wealth. At a certain point, there is no need for more. Though I confess I never thought I'd say it, I envy them. But I envy them because they have stayed, because they have not left the field, they have not disappeared. They followed a path that they set before themselves, and they've continued along it, even when the sidewalk ended, blazing trails of their own making. It doesn't make me want to purchase the latest Windows operating system, or the current copy of O Magazine at the checkout stand. But I envy them nonetheless.

Yes, I want success. But what is success? Perhaps, success is the freedom (inward as well as outward) to pursue those things that fire our passions, and the courage to continue the pursuit no matter what. I think of Rembrandt, his rise to fame and fortune, then his precipitous fall. He died in poverty, forgotten, forsaken. But even to the end (you can see it in his late self-portraits), he continued, honing that vision, his remarkable vision to see light, to sense it even in darkness (cultivated as a child, growing up in the darkness of his father's mill). I have long envied him, even if I seek to avoid the conditions in which he died.

It's not money or the lack of it that makes us who we are. Fame and fortune are incidental, as are poverty and obscurity. I no longer believe that those who are lucky are necessarily those most worthy (nor for that matter the least worthy). They are merely lucky. But luck does not ensure their happiness; no more than its lack ensures misery.

Whatever I do, wherever the path leads (wherever my meandering takes me), against all odds, even when the odds are with me, in success and in failure, most of all (and this is what I envy), I want to continue.


BrightStar said...

I know this feeling, both professionally and personally. It's not a fun place (for me) to be. I wish you the best in your opportunities to continue.

Lilian said...

Oh my friend, I feel the same about most everything -- I've been writing drafts of my "envy" post for a while now, both on paper and in my mind. I also worry about money because it is something we do need *now* and I wonder how I can contribute to our budget, what can I do to make money when all I is to be able to continue pursuing my dreams, researching, writing, etc.