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Taming Dragons: Jealousy

Our dragons lurk in the darkest parts of our mind, heart and soul. They go by many names, take on many different forms. But while they may be fearsome and dangerous, they needn’t be our enemies. Today’s dragon is called: Jealousy.

jealousy taming dragons
Photo: Carlos Andres Reyes @Flickr

We all know how those birthday parties go. Someone asks: “So, how is business going these days?” and immediately your cousin tells about their new car, that promotion they got, and the tour through South-East Asia they will be going on next month.

You listen, dreading the moment they will ask: “And how about you?” Because your car is ten years old, you’ve had to put in extra shifts to increase your wages this month, and your summer holiday will be a camping trip.

Your innards churn, your throat constricts. “Why them, and not me?” whines a voice in the back of your head. Life isn’t treating you badly. Not at all, and you know it. Still, you feel sick at heart.

That is Jealousy for you. She is a vicious dragon, but you needn’t put up with her antics.

What wakes Jealousy?

I don’t want to spoil your relationship with your cousin, so let’s imagine two merchant ships instead. Two years ago, the Ahab and the Boromir set sail for distant shores. They have crossed the oceans, braved storms, fought pirates and faced hardship to trade foreign riches. When both ships return to port, their captains go to the tavern for a drink.

As the captains discuss their voyages, it becomes clear that the Ahab brought home a massive profit. Its sister ship Boromir didn’t have a yield quite so spectacular, but they did well enough.

The captain of the Boromir feels a little sting that he ‘lost’. Still, he knows that the Ahab’s crew worked as hard as did his own. Surely they have deserved their good results. So he congratulates his colleague, while in his mind, the Jealousy dragon continues to slumber.

In a perfect world, this is where the story ends. Like the captain of the Boromir, most of us can be happy for a friend or relative who reaps the spoils of their hard work. We may grumble because we feel we have worked just as hard, but in general, we can agree that if someone worked for their gains, they have earned it. Next topic.

But after quaffing down a few more ales, the captain of the Ahab tells about the shipwreck they encountered on a shore. No survivors, but several crates of precious goods lay up for grabs. A true windfall! They salvaged what they could and traded those wares for a handsome profit.

Now the captain of the Boromir slams his mug on the bar. He’s furious! The Ahab hasn’t earned its profit at all! No honest reward for honest work, but pure luck. They made that big profit on goods that were never theirs.

That’s immoral and undeserved, the captain of the Boromir thinks. That the Ahab yielded more profit is entirely unjustified!

So Jealousy wakes, whining: “Why the Ahab, and not me?”

Understanding Jealousy’s Nature

The jealous captain’s issue with the Ahab’s windfall stems from a combination of factors:

  1. He is unhappy with where he is at: the Boromir didn’t make as much profit as he had hoped.
  2. He doesn’t believe there is a solution to that unhappiness. His crew worked as hard as they could, he did the best possible deals, so he is convinced he has no right to desire a better result than what they got.
  3. He believes that how the Ahab achieved their results is morally wrong. What they did was not criminal, but in our captain’s eyes it was morally reprehensive. And yet… he wishes he’d encountered that shipwreck himself.

As you can see, the core of the good captain’s Jealousy has nothing to do with the Ahab. Rather it is his own convictions that woke the dragon.

Windfalls and the Devil’s Luck

We have a warped perception of luck. When it comes to us, we feel we’ve earned it. When it comes to another, we envy them for it.

Lotteries demonstrate this like no other. When someone wins a large sum in a lottery, we are green in the face. “Why them? They didn’t earn that money. They have no right to it!” Yet we play that same lottery ourselves. Just in case we win the next draw.

The real problem, however, arises because our own moral objections clash with our desires. Taking the example of lottery again, breaking down such a clash in steps might look like this:

  1. We feel we’re short on money and want more, but
  2. we believe that ‘money is the root of all evil’ / ‘money is always short’ / ‘you should be happy with what you have’ / etc.
  3. So we tell ourselves that ‘money should be earned’ and ‘winning the lottery is cheating’).

Then someone does win a ton of money in a lottery, and we feel cheated. Cheated and angry.

A Special Brand of Anger

That anger is a specific variety called jealousy. Jealousy is a perfectly normal human response to disappointment, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are disappointed with ourselves. Like the captain of the Boromir was disappointed with his own results and angry that he hadn’t done more increase them more than he was angry at the Ahab for their windfall.

But humans are terrible at taking responsibilities for themselves. Rather than admit that we aren’t happy with our actions and the results they yielded, we try to convince ourselves we cling to that last step. We convince ourselves we have the moral high ground: at least we didn’t ‘cheat’ by winning a lottery. At least we work hard to earn our rewards.

It’s a cynical outlook that propagates the idea that luck is always undeserved. Even when we get lucky ourselves…

The Moral Equation

“But if people ‘get lucky’ over someone else’s back, that is reprehensive,” I hear you say. If it involved criminal activities, yes. However, what Jealousy calls ‘immoral’ is usually a normal thing to do.

The only difference is that she didn’t think of it.

Had the Boromir’s captain thought: “That’s a cool idea. I should think of that if ever we happen on a shipwreck,” he wouldn’t have begrudged the Ahab their spoils. But he does. He does, because he knows that if the Boromir found that shipwreck, he would have prayed for the lost souls and sailed on. He wouldn’t have thought to drop anchor and salvage the abandoned cargo.

The Ahab did what he wouldn’t have, and – petty as the human brain is – he is furious that he didn’t think of it first.

Taming the Dragon

At heart, Jealousy is you being angry at yourself. Fortunately, there are less destructive ways than anger and cynicism to deal with this green-eyed dragon:

As you may recall, when our two captains first entered the bar, Jealousy was still fast asleep. The captain of the Boromir congratulated his colleague on the Ahab’s wonderful results and decided that on next trip, he would endeavour to do better himself.

That is the end to strive for: both captains happy with their respective results, and happy for each other. No fight, no disdain. Just two colleagues sharing a drink and having a good time.

But jealousy woke when he was confronted with his own shortcomings. Not just his moral convictions got in the way, but his conviction that he cannot have what he desires. So of course he gets jealous when his colleagues achieves what he so desperately wants.

So, how to tackle Jealousy before she breathes her fire?

Knowing the cause is half the medicine. This requires introspection and hard work (and possibly a therapist), but it will be worth it.

Next time you feel jealous of someone, ask yourself:

  • What has the other gained, and is it something I want, too?
  • How did they gain it, and is that significant to me?
  • Why do I believe that this achievement/gain is out of my reach?
  • What can I do to help myself?

Remember that Jealousy is never about others. Instead, take good care of yourself. Overcome your Resistance and take the actions you need in order to reap the rewards you seek. Being happy with your own efforts makes it easier to be happy for others. It makes it easier to feel gratitude – and gratitude is a powerful emotion!

Not to mention that those birthday parties are much more pleasant when Jealousy sleeps ;).


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