Dani Shapiro
December 23, 2010

On Envy

Is there a worse feeling than envy?  If so I’m not sure what it is.  Because at its core, envy is about comparison.  It’s a nasty, nasty piece of work.  It wishes another person ill.  When it comes to writers, envy usually has something to do with a sense of deserving.  As in, why does she get to be…fill in the blank: published, well-reviewed, prize-winning, acclaimed…when that hasn’t happened to me?  Really, it’s an ugly thing to write about, and part of me would like to just take a pass, skip this deadly sin altogether, but the truth is that envy takes root in the murky netherworld of so many of our writing lives.  And it needs to be pulled up by those roots, expunged–because it is the most internally corrosive of all the sins, and so deeply damaging to the creative process.  It causes anxiety and dread.  It makes generosity impossible.  It shuts us down, closes us off–and what happens when we’re shut down and closed off?

The muse takes a hike, that’s what.

When I was writing Devotion, one of the most important pieces of wisdom I learned had to do with the whole idea of comparison.  I was at a retreat with Sharon Salzberg and Sylvia Boorstein, and they talked about Buddhism’s Eight Vicissitudes: pain and pleasure, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss.  These are a part of all of our lives at one time or another, the teaching goes.  So why compare?  Comparing (which is a first cousin of envy) is (GOD I love this Buddhist term) unskillful.  It is unskillful to compare ourselves to others–to envy others–because none of us are exempt from life’s vicissitudes.  What one person has at this particular moment should be of no concern to us.


I have envied.  There, I’ve said it.  I’ve also been the object of envy, which is a dreadful feeling–a nullifying feeling–because when you are envied, in a sense you are being turned into a non-person.  You are a representation, rather than a being.  And on some level–not to be overly dramatic, but I think this is true–someone wishes you dead.  As a writer, my one saving grace when it comes to envy is that I don’t envy great books.  When I read an excellent book–whether by a stranger, a friend or even a foe–I am filled with admiration, wonder, and Pollyanna-ish as this may sound–hope.  It shows me what is possible, and it inspires me to do better.  To write better.  To learn more, open myself creatively.  To take leaps.

Of course, when tremendous success comes to a book or a writer that I don’t think is great…well, that’s another story.  And that is where my lessons are, in my ongoing attempt to be more skillful.  To stop comparing.  To understand that envy is a distorted mirror, and it’s only hurting me.