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Examining a jealousy that's a long way from the green-eyed monster

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

‘Comparison is a very foolish attitude,” said Indian mystic Chandra Mohan Jain, popularly known as Osho (1931-90), “because each person is unique and incomparable. Once this understanding settles in you, jealousy disappears.”

It may be true, but the fact seems to be that “this understanding settles” in very few of us, and jealousy, as a shaper of character and social relations, is here to stay, barring a mass movement toward mysticism — nowhere on the horizon at present.

Everyone knows the biblical stories of the jealous God and the first murder — by Cain, jealous of the favor God showed his brother, Abel. One of the biblical Ten Commandments forbids “covetousness,” which in Buddhism is one of the “three evils,” together with anger and delusion.

But can we help ourselves? The business magazine President this month surveys 1,000 respondents, men and women, aged from their 20s to their 60s, and computes an average “jealousy ratio” of 42 percent, pretty much constant across the age and gender spectrum. What exactly this “ratio” means is not clear — that nearly half of us are jealous? That we’re all jealous nearly half the time? Or is it a measure of the intensity of our jealousy when it’s aroused? Interpretation is at the reader’s discretion. The point is, it’s out there. Is it in you? You know best.

It’s in the animals. It’s in birds, President hears from psychological counselor Shinrai Oshima. Young birds fling helpless infant siblings out of the nest to their death. They will not share parental attention; they will have it all and no moral delicacy hold them back, as it would most of us. Presumably the parents are forgiving. Evolution would have stamped the practice out otherwise.

Love — filial, parental, erotic — is a demanding passion. Blighting its finer qualities is its possessiveness. We’re not as different from baby birds as we like to think. Love shared is love threatened. It’s our instinctive fear of solitude, Oshima says, that makes us feel that way. Today the pursuit of success has largely replaced the pursuit of love, and jealousy has evolved accordingly. How can I be content with my success if you — my friend, my colleague, my child, someone I read about in the newspaper — are more successful than I am?

Success has many symbols: an expensive foreign car, a luxurious house, money in the bank, friends in high places, a crowded social calendar, good looks and so on. All, according to President, arouse jealousy — varying degrees of it in various people, but the upshot is that all these things symbolize superiority, and we all want to be, or seem, superior, whatever lip service we pay to equality. Stanford University research confirms it and even quantifies it: Men on average feel 22 percent “superior” to the average person.

Maybe that’s good for us. Oshima says jealousy flows from the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning. It energizes us, goads us onward against lethargy and discouragement. Maybe the more jealous we are the more talented, or vice versa. Certainly talent attracts jealousy — parental jealousy of bright children; bosses’ jealousy of subordinates who outshine them. It’s not a rule, but almost anyone’s life will provide anecdotal evidence.

Jealousy is shared by men and women, old and young (children are outside President’s purview) — but there are differences. Male jealousy, testosterone-driven, tends to be aroused by income, productivity, luxury and other symbols of successful competition. Women focus more on relationships: “She’s more popular than I am, gets invited to more parties, gets on better with the boss; why was she invited to that office drinking party (which I didn’t want to go to anyway) and not me?” Women no longer depend on men as they once did, but age-old impulses die hard, and this one, says Oshima, is rooted in the primordial female “search for a mate.”

Expensive foreign cars — who cares about them? Older men, mostly. Their jealousy can still be aroused at the sight of this preeminent status symbol of their youth. Today’s youth, less car-driven, have other concerns: “likes” on social media; clothes that are photogenic on social media. Not that older people are indifferent to clothes. It’s the generation in between that is, relatively. Fashion is back, after a 20-year span in which it counted for little.

There’s jealousy and jealousy. President, without defining the term, deals with its most benign form — envy. Shedding it would no doubt make us better people leading more wholesome lives. Still, President’s jealousy is a long way from Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Shakespeare’s Othello was a man in love; President’s survey respondents are comparatively unimpassioned men and women making their way in the workaday world, forever wanting a little more than they have — as who, Osho notwithstanding, does not, in an economy stressing upward mobility?

We can only rise so high. There’s always someone richer, more powerful, better connected, better loved. “Each person is unique and incomparable,” said Osho; poverty, therefore, is as much an asset as wealth, “once the understanding settles.” Brutus magazine this month offers a suggestion conducive to that understanding: tea ceremony. It’s an ancient Japanese pastime, excruciatingly formal to despisers of formality, soothingly ritualistic to the more favorably inclined. It can settle the understanding, says tea master Yuriko Ishida. “Concentrating your consciousness on tea, you leave worldly thoughts behind; a moment encompasses eternity. I like that feeling,” she adds, disarmingly.

Jealousy is the worldliest of “thoughts” — feelings, rather. It has no place in the tea room. A century ago, writer and art critic Kakuzo Okakura (1863-1913), in “The Book of Tea,” invited the samurai to “leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tea room being preeminently the house of peace. Then he will bend low and creep into the room through a small door not more than 3 feet in height. This proceeding was incumbent on all guests, high and low alike, and was intended to inculcate humility” — in whose light jealousy withers, if it ever does.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

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