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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Why Envy Can Make You a Great Friend

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I was having coffee recently with my friend Jim, who proudly confessed that he had crossed an important bridge: "I am no longer jealous of my friends." I laughed at first, realized he was not kidding, and told him I was envious of his LACK of envy.

Obviously, some amount of jealousy can be useful in forcing us to aim higher. Assuming that is your reaction to the excellence of others. There must be sturdy souls whose competitive juices rise to the occasion, but most the writers I know say they never read popular authors while they are writing, as it only makes them realize they can never reach such heights. Likewise, many actors choose not to watch performances by those in similar or even the same roles. Either because they don't want to be influenced or because they fear they can't measure up.

I admit to being a pretty hopeless Enviac. For example, it almost hurts to read reviews of plays by Sarah Ruehl, who seems to create an amazing theatrical work every six minutes. My first instinct is to send a hit man to put her out of business. My second is to crawl under the covers and wallow in self pity. My third is to say, dammit, I am going to write a better one. No, not than my last one, but better than HERS.

Now I don't know Sarah Ruehl, so I am allowed to hate her. My friends are something different. Like Jim, I have spent much of my life grinning through my jealousy. "He got into Brown? Terrific!" "A six figure contract? Go for it!" Eventually, I like to think I reach a place of support and pride, even if I find a way to spin it back: "If I am her friend, it must say something about me." I try to prove my lack of green bile by going the extra mile: becoming an instant publicist, telling everyone I know they must read her book, see his play, etc. It does not mean I am not filled with wishful dreaming. It simply means I realize intellectually and emotionally that I am a bigger person than that. It's a great exercise that I highly recommend.

We Enviacs, by the way, are not only of the professional variety. I look at others my age and see whiter and straighter teeth, arms that still can go sleeveless and I want to go under those covers again. But, having co-written a book this year with two models-turned-psychologists, I have attained a happier place in that arena. Rather than going to those immediate dark places, ("yeah, but look how her husband treats her") I admire other midlifers' beauteous aspects in a youth-crazed culture. Hey, we are all survivors who believed for too long that we would be forever young.

Perhaps the most dangerous form of envy revolves around our most precious assets, our children. Not among them, mind you, but among we supposed grownups who have to learn to smile through the tears and withhold hasty reactions. I remember when my five year old was accepted into a tony kindergarten in Los Angeles and I was practically attacked by a pair of moms in the preschool parking lot. "How did you get in there"? One shrieked. "I didn't get in, she did," I responded gamely.

The answer, as usual, is perspective. Some of us lose it on a regular basis, no matter how many times we remind ourselves that we have so many things to be grateful for. Often, it's simply a matter of getting away. I spoke to a writers association in a town "between the coasts" last year and talked about how insecure I have always been, how nothing is ever good enough. "I just assumed I would grow up to be Nora Ephron," I said, "and then I realized there already was one." The blank faces stared back. They were not quite sure who Nora Ephron was, and they wanted to get back to how I managed to do the work I was doing. They were, dare I say, envious.

Which reminded me that envy is truly a daisy chain. Everyone has someone they are more successful, and less successful, than. We all know someone who is better looking and always will be, but others aren't as fit. Sure, everyone else has perfect kids, but really, could you love yours any more? I guess the overarching question is, does it matter? The better questions are: Am I happy? Are my kids healthy? Am I? Am I still creating at a satisfactory level? Do I have friends and am I a good friend to them?

Which brings us back to where we began. When they tell me about their new book, the role their daughter got, can I swallow my momentary envy? And rather than reaching for the bottle, can I reach for the champagne and pop it in their honor?

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