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Good Morning Families, today is Wednesday April 22nd, 2020 and it is now time for our moment of SEL.
I am bald. I have no hair on my head. Hair does not grow on the back or front of my head, so I shave everything to keep it even. I used to have hair. Super thick hair. So thick that several times, as a kid, I’d ask the stylist to use the thinning shears. I shudder to think that now; youth wasted on the young.
I love hair. If you have hair on your head, I love it. It’s amazing and you look amazing with it, no matter how much it may give you struggles, to me, that fact that it’s there, is wonderful. I’d like to have it. In fact, I experience what may be labeled as benign envy. That is, I want what you have.
Envy. Not jealousy. Envy is an uncomfortable feeling. You may have experienced envy before. Here’s how to know if you’ve experienced envy. It is built on social comparison on recognizing social hierarchy and your place in it. When it comes to “doing stuff with your hair” any hair, no matter how challenging, outranks the hairless. I’m on the bottom.
Now, in the case of hair, I do not wish you any harm nor do I resent you for having hair, that is what makes my “hair envy” benign envy. I admire all the things you can do with your wonderful hair.
However, I do experience a more insidious envy when it comes to music and in particular shows like the “The Voice”. With this I feel resent. As a musician, I can find joy in every genre of music. All music can teach, even if the lesson is “don’t do that”. I make music. Many, many people make music. I don’t make music like the music on the voice. Not because I don’t like that music, I do like it, but I like other genres just as much. I would like a more equitable playing field for people to discover more variety of music, including my own. This is where I slide into malicious envy.
“The Voice” or “American Idol” when it was a thing, and even the beyond absurd “Masked Singer” take only one genre of music and then only one aspect of that genre, which is only one style of singing, and elevate it and promote it far beyond all others. I feel resentment. The producers, the judges, the participants, all of them. I know I would experience joy if shows like these were to be canceled. I would experience TRUE joy if after these shows were canceled the producers were publicly flogged for eroding the arts; for hogging the market of attention, for enforcing one style of singing as “the best” over all others. That is pretty ugly to admit, but it’s true, I feel that. Of course, in my dark desire for punishment I am not even capable of considering how much watching these shows may bring joy to many others. Or how, these shows in fact do me no harm. It is only me, saying that these people are intruders in the sacred space because of the values I hold about music, not because of any truth. That’s how tricky envy is. It can be a swift slide into some pretty strange and twisted feelings.
Now, you may not wish ill will toward the Masked Singer, but you may have a masked singer of your own. In fact, you may inadvertently expose yourself to these feelings by doing nothing more than cruising social media. And look, this is not going to be about bashing social media. But it is about cultivating the awareness of recognize what can happen when we slide into comparing ourselves socially.
There is quite a bit of research that shows social comparison is something that happens naturally for humans and even primates. Knowing this would make me think that it is not likely we will simply be able to “stop comparing ourselves with others” very easily.
And, when we do compare ourselves to others, it may be common to recognize experiencing a feeling of deficit or of lacking or even of being forsaken. That can be painful. Sometimes in response to that pain we may have the tendency to balance our feelings of envy for those we deem above us, by shifting our focus to those we judge as below us. Even though this may be protective, or even seem logical by measuring our good fortune against those less fortunate, it can still be a trap because this comparative analysis still confirms both the existence of the social ladder and our place on it. This can be a perilous reinforcement of duality because it affirms hierarchy. I would encourage us all to try to find a means to count our own blessings as they resonant for us internally and not in comparison to the blessings or misfortunes of others.
Side note, regarding empathy, it is in fact the feelings from the blessings and misfortunates of others that we are giving attention to in order to share in others joy and suffering, but empathy is a different door than envy. So even though the content of focus may seem similar between empathy and envy by focusing on others, the context is very different.
But, let’s go back. Not all social comparison is bad. In fact, in some regards, social comparison could be supportive, particularly if it results in more comfortable feelings like admiration, aspiration, inspiration, or goal setting. So maybe, in the space of social comparison there is a way to hold ourselves in more favorable feelings. That is, finding the line between benign envy and more malicious envy.
Here is one way you can do it. It’s my favorite old soccer metaphor. You play that ball not player. That is, your focus is on the what the ball is doing, not the player or players moving the ball. On the soccer field, if you shift from playing the ball to playing the player, you’re going to miss something. Your focus is shifted. The other team will likely score. Or you’re play will get personal and you will get whistled. Play will need to stop. There may be a yellow card or a red card before play resumes.
You can use this metaphor to grow your self-awareness and self-management. You need to be your own feelings referee. If you see something that someone else has or does and you feel inspired or excited or even desire to create, or re-create or achieve something similar, great! That would be playing the ball. Play on player. But if you see something that shifts your focus from the event, or the creation, toward the person who did it or experienced it, b low the whistle. Stop the play. That would be the moment to catch yourself before the slide. Here’s another metaphor. Focus on the art, not the artist.
If you do this, envy can be a road-marker or an exit door from social comparison. If you can recognize when you are playing the player, and not the ball, that’s a good clue that it’s time to stop and shift your thinking. Let your awareness be your guide. In fact, give your awareness a striped shirt and a whistle.
Blow your whistle on yourself and stop your play. Reset the ball and take it in a different direction. If it is really challenging in the beginning to notice when you’re playing the player or focusing on the artist and not the art, you may still be able to catch it by monitoring any building resentment. In fact, building resentment may eventually lead on schadenfreude. That’s shameful joy. The enjoyment of the suffering of others. That’s what I am describing in myself when imaging the producers of The Voice being publicly humiliated. That’s hard to admit because it’s ugly, but it’s true.
And on the note of shame, one additional difficulty about envy is that from a very early age, when children express envy, there may be a tendency for adults to inadvertently meet the child’s natural expression of envy with shame. As I have just done for myself. That is, we adults know have heard be envious is to be wicked. After all envy is not favorable in many of the world’s largest religions. It is definitely not something we want others to know about us. This can present a double whammy. First, there is the uncomfortable experience of envy and then it is replaced with the uncomfortable feeling of shame. Double whammy! And even if we don’t do this to our kids, we might do this to ourselves.
But if you use your internal referee, you can recognize your envy and whistle it down before it sinks from aspirational to resentful. Aspiration is action oriented. It has direction, a goal, maybe even a plan. Resent is stagnant. It just sits there. Of course, if it sits there long enough, it may also develop a plan. I would be cautious of plans built on resentment.
Here’s what I do for my feelings about music. First, I recognize that the participants on those shows love music as much as I do and I remind myself that composition is not competition. That helps me connect with them as we are, musicians. There is community in that. Then focus on the ball or in this case the art. I listen to the song, not what people are saying about the song. I listen to the way it is performed. I imagine what part I might play or add if I were to be playing it. Then I can take that creative thought and apply it to my own music. Can I make an idea like that work in something I am writing? Would it move my music forward? Can I make it something I like? I also remind myself I am in a band with people I care about very much. I get to create music with them. I get to perform music with them. Those things produce great joy. That’s it. Not hard to do, once I’m able to not slide into creatively crippling envy. But I have to referee myself.
Here’s what I do for my baldness. Two words. Dwayne Johnson. The Rock. King of the baldies. I’ve loved him since he was wrestling. Even then we had the same slowly receding hairline. He’s been my hair model for years. And he makes baldness look good. Really good. He’s my inspiration. And on that note, I need to do some push-ups.
I look forward to connecting in whatever way we can tomorrow. Until tomorrow, may your thoughts and feelings be with you.
If you are interested in a deeper dive into envy you may want to listen to a recent episode of Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain. www.npr.org