Ugly Emotion

For me, the end of the school year is a season for envy—seniors choose colleagues to speak at functions like graduation, and other teachers receive dedications and prizes and travel grants and fellowships.  They are lauded as exceptionally hard-working, as friends to their students, as dedicated to the broader school community, as warm and comic and challenging but fun.

I like to think I’m some of those things, and, as the year comes to a close, a few of my students do quietly express gratitude.  A couple ask me to sign their yearbooks.  Yet I find myself wishing for more affirmation and can’t seem to escape my envy.

When students throw surprise parties or show dramatic affection for other teachers, I try to feel good for them—they deserve it—but that little voice won’t shut up, “Why not me?”

Envy is my ugliest emotion.  Some feelings I rationalize as momentary, negative only in context, or—as long as I can keep them secret—motivating.  But envy isn’t easy.  In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell describes envy as doubly devastating—harmful to you and the object of your envy.  The envier feels inadequate and begins to hope for someone else’s misfortune. When someone receives praise I think I deserve, my feelings of inadequacy grow until—if I don’t exactly wish others ill—I begin to resent their success.  Why them?

This confession is unbecoming, I know.  I try to be Buddhist, recognize I’m craving. The root of my issue is—what else?—attachment, living too vividly in the material world. Buddhists represent envy as a horse because, when horses feel another horse at their shoulder, they can’t bear it.  I try to bear it.  I don’t want to be a horse or, more accurately, a horse’s ass, so I attempt to celebrate now without thoughts of gain or perceived needs.

Yet, emotions are irrational.  Not wanting them doesn’t help.

Western philosophers make a distinction between jealousy and envy, in that jealousy focuses on the beloved—desiring exclusive love, you can’t bear another stealing your lover.  In contrast, envy is about the rival.  He or she possesses something you feel ought to be yours.

Still, there’s a problem. These interesting intellectual distinctions don’t matter much.  Both terms will do.  I want students to love me particularly and that means they can’t love rivals more.  It’s about the beloved and the rival.

And, as if I’m not confused enough already, I also feel guilty.  What sort of teacher insists on being loved—could such a teacher be lovable?  No wonder honors land elsewhere—just dividing the world into lovers and rivals makes me unworthy.  Teaching should be altruistic, and here I am wishing for credit. No one enters teaching for credit… or money.

If only I could live in the now, I might string an otherworldly necklace of teachable moments until it wound around me like an endless garland of blossoms… with me, the happy Buddha, sitting with a silly grin in the middle of adoring acolytes.

But you see where I’m going—every rational response leads me in ever decreasing circles until I fly up my own ass with a resounding “fwhump.”

It comes down to not ever feeling I have enough—enough respect, enough gratitude, enough love, enough praise, enough honor.  It’s a matter of desire, and I want to know…

How can I live without that?

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1 Comment

Filed under Doubt, Education, Envy, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

One response to “Ugly Emotion

  1. MCG

    Envy is one (of many) of my ugliest traits, too. It’s particularly potent in this post-grad purgatory I currently inhabit. When friends find jobs and/or success, I’m happy for them. At least I hope I am, somewhere deep down. But mostly I’m jealous.

    And then, of course, I feel guilty for being jealous.

    But, while you may feel yourself an unsung hero, I might remind you that the THS class of 2005 (?) chose YOU as their commencement speaker. And I? I can’t leave you alone. You’ve moved halfway cross the country. Years have passed. And yet I keep hounding you. A small consolation, I realize, but consolation none the less. I can say with conviction and without hesitation that, as a teacher and person, you are both admired and respected.

    I know I’m not so unsung. Worse, I know much greater heroes who are more unsung. I also know it ought to be more important for me to reach a few people (important people like yourself) than to receive formal accolades. But this piece was my ugly confession–I envy others even when envy is absurd.

    Maybe the poor-pitiful-me message is the point, as that is what shames me most. What is praise enough, when are past awards great enough or recent honors recent enough? What IS enough? Given my successes–I was THS graduation speaker in ’07–I can easily celebrate my colleagues’ successes and do, but still that “Why not me?” voice won’t shut up. That’s my really ugly confession.

    After posting this piece, I learned my colleagues here elected me to faculty council, a tremendous honor that, of course, made things better… and worse. I understand the relationship between suffering and craving, and yet…

    As for being hounded, being hounded is the best part of teaching… and the greatest honor. I do appreciate it and ought to appreciate it more.

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