“I want to talk about jealousy,” began a voicemail of my most honest friend, who no longer bothers to introduce herself when she calls.
“Not like, ‘I want your stuff’ jealousy,” the voicemail continued, “But the jealousy that makes me want to go over to my friend’s house, walk in her front door, and take a shit in the middle of her living room.”
As you might imagine, I loved this voicemail.
When I called my friend back, we slowly let our jealousy stories inch out, the way my first boyfriend and I moved our hands incrementally nearer to each other over the course of a 2-hour movie, until our pinkies blissfully connected for the last 5 minutes of the film. (Hook. And this explains everything to my older brother Jacob who never understood my affinity for that movie.)
Eventually, a theme of our jealousy emerged: There’s no room for me. We are jealous of our friends whose stories make sense, who fit the cultural narrative of how People Are Supposed to Be. Their marriages look right, their perfect children always behave. Or maybe they rock the single/dating life, while we feel awkward and ugly. They are the right race, they speak the right native language. They belong in the world. We, with our terrible boyfriends and unruly children and hatred of Jesus and our split ends, do not.
Often the objects of our jealousy have what we perceive as bliss, while we have suffering. But my friend and I both agreed that our unique suffering is not actually what makes us jealous. Rather, our attempts to hide our suffering, to make it palatable for regular people, THAT is the dry kindling that fuels our jealousy. We contort our grotesque, disfigured selves into regular human forms, then we hate those regular human forms we try so hard to mimic.
“Maybe jealousy is a byproduct or even a symptom of trauma,” I suggested to my friend. Trauma expert Peter Levine writes, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside us in the absence of an empathic witness.” An empathic witness is someone who sees accurately the effect of trauma. Empathic witnesses never try to make it better. They just see trauma for what it is: Horrific, devastating, confusing. And they can reflect this to the survivor without the trauma response of becoming overwhelmed and shutting down. The empathic witness essentially digests the horror for the traumatized person, which turns trauma in to plain old suffering. Suffering, just like every human being on earth has experienced. We can do suffering.
Our jealous impulses make us want to bring others down to our level of suffering— by pooping in their living room, for example. But isn’t that just a desire to see our own experience as legitimate? We are looking for that empathic witness: “My life is shitty. I will make your life shitty too, so that you can know my experience. Then I can finally claim my shitty-ass experience as real and valid.”
“It’s like that TED talk on illness as identity,” my friend said. “Homosexuality used to be considered an illness, now it’s an identity. Deaf people almost universally report that they would refuse a miracle that allowed them to hear, because their deafness is their identity. So maybe our suffering could be our identity, if there could just be space for it to exist in the relationship. If it wasn’t seen as something we are supposed to wish away, or hide from others.”
Are you jealous much? I am, all the time, and so is my Most Honest Friend. We think we need the bliss that others (seem to) have, but we don’t. We need to find empathic witnesses, both inside and outside of ourselves. These people help us turn our trauma into suffering, and then integrate our suffering into our identity. When we get there, we are free us to be our true selves in relationship.
Are others jealous of you? They are of me, with my many racial, physical, and economic privileges. We can soothe the jealousy others have towards us by making room for them as not-us, by refusing to see their jealousy as proof that we are doing things right. We must see our own stories (our race, ability, orientation, etc) as one of many ways a person can be.