O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
the meat it feeds on
That little piece of Shakespeare, spoken by Iago in Othello, is the origin of the phrase ‘green with envy.’ It is believed that Shakespeare is describing the green eyes of a black cat to make his metaphor.
Comparing envy to an animal is a particularly clever. It seems beyond our control. Someone has something, knows something, or does something you cannot. And you want.
This is a raw emotion everyone feels; no matter how humble, balanced, or successful a person might be, there will always be someone to who has qualities you both lack and desire. But from this root emotional state, a person has two possible reactions: admiration or envy.
Envy can be understood as the negative reaction to that unnamed state. It is essentially destructive; an envious person tries to bring others down, to destroy what they have built. If courage is lacking for that kind of action, they can always fume in silence. It leads to dark, petty places.
Patrick Bateman is an excellent literary example of this. As the protagonist of American Psycho, he is utterly envious of everyone in his life that he thinks is doing better than him. His every action is driven by his envy.
In one scene of the movie, Patrick and a group of New York investment bankers are sizing each other up, talking about haircuts and accounts and suits. But it is not these things that move their envious minds; what does is a business card. A nice looking business card, but still a meaningless 3×5 piece of cardboard. This drives the assembled group into a sullen stupor. Of course, Bateman and his ilk stand as a hypertrophied example of envy, but like all good fiction, it speaks to something very true.
Admiration is not so petty. Instead of trying to tear down, admiration is a recognition that there is someone out there who is better. It is a call to build yourself. By its nature it is constructive.
Benjamin Franklin, when he was a young man, found the writing of a singular publication in Philadelphia, the New Statesman, to be particularly fine. Here he found writers he could not yet match, so he set about imitating them. He would read an essay while producing notes on what each sentence said, then trying to write the essay again without reading it, attempting to reproduce the excellent writing of the original. It was in this way that he learned to write well, develop his ideas, and make his mark on American history.
The difference between the two is that in the second instance, the root emotion is bridled. Both Bateman and Franklin had this emotion in their gut. The difference comes with what they did with that emotion.
In fact, most emotions are like that. We feel angry, we feel sad, we feel happy; there’s little control that we have over how we feel at any given moment. We can always control, however, our reactions to those feelings.
Emotions should therefore be understood as not something to be released, but something to fuel our ends. This is defined by habit. An emotion can be understood as a ‘cue,’ something that is the original impetus for a habit loop, that sparks and action and leads to a reward.
But no matter the emotion, once you understand what your habit loop looks like and what you’d like it to be, you can break the beast. It becomes easier to drive emotions to positive activity. The reverse is also true; if you react poorly to your feelings, it becomes easier to react poorly in the future. In terms of envy, it will send you to awful places.
Like most things, it is all matter of habit.
And for that matter, literary theory.