Perfect quote

Joan Didion1 is wise:

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive”, that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

The only amendment I’d make is that it’s not just popular understandings of marriage but of any close relationships. Siblings and close friends are also popularly supposed to be in competition with one another.

I remember when me and two good friends were up for the same scholarship. One of them won. No one would believe that we were happy for her. They did not understand that we could be disappointed for ourselves and happy for her at the same time. Clearly they feared their heads would explode if they admitted that those two feelings could exist side by side.

To avert said head explosion they questioned us further, adding more “reallys?” and “are you sures?” to their questions. We kept saying that we weren’t jealous, that we were overjoyed for our friend. They changed tactics and accused us of protesting too much. We sighed and backed away.

What can you say when you are asked if you’re jealous of your parent/sibling/lover/spouse/best friend? It’s like being asked if you still beat your spouse.2 In fact, just writing this will convince some people that I’m being defensive. (Or that I’m still beating my spouse.)

This view of the world mystifies me. Mostly because in my experience people who see themselves as being in competition with you, who are cranky when you succeed, and rejoice when you fail are not your friends. They will not do good by you. Flee from them! Let me repeat because I think it’s really important:

People who are cranky when you succeed and rejoice when you fail are not your friends.

When someone asks me if I’m jealous or resentful of someone I care about it feels like they’re asking me to say that I’m not friends with that person. Which is why I find it such a weird question. I still haven’t figured out what to say to the people whose response to my boasting about the achievements of a loved one is to console me. Huh? It’s like we’re not living on the same planet.

Why do so many think spouses or siblings or best friends in the same profession are automatically in competition? Is it because movies such as A Star is Born have trained us to think that way? Are we confusing fictional narratives and plot devices with real life?

Because, me, I really don’t get it. Can any of you clue me in?

  1. The quote comes from her moving memoir of the aftermath of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking. []
  2. For the record: I have never beaten Scott. Not unless he’s asked nicely. 🙂 However, I have on occasion told him he is a poo-head but only when he was totally being a poo-head. []


  1. Rebecca on #

    i don’t really know either. i think it’s because a lot of people who are thought of as being typically competetive are pretty competetive. when you’re around someone constantly, it may become hard not to compare yourself to him/her. but as to why the need for competition or comparison is constantly there (for some), i don’t really know.

    there was some essay i read for some class about a woman who met this other really successful guy at some retreat thing and then they wrote letters back and forth, and finally moved in together, and that’s about all i remember, except that she left him because she was jealous of his success and couldn’t deal with it. and most of the time i was wondering how she could love him and be so jealous of him at the same time.

  2. cecil on #

    They did not understand that we could be disappointed for ourselves and happy for her at the same time. Clearly they feared their heads would explode if they admitted that those two feelings could exist side by side.

    I have never understood why people can’t understand the beautiful duality of the human heart.

    I love when my friends do well, am overjoyed when they win, and am devastated when they fail. And I know they (you!) feel the same about me.

    I also believe quite strongly that everyone takes turns in the ups and downs, so i just root for us all all the time.

    *shakes pom poms*

  3. Diana on #

    And also, that there is healthy jealousy and unhealthy jealousy. Wishing you could have something *too*, rather than *instead*.

  4. Ben Payne on #

    “When someone asks me if I’m jealous or resentful of someone I care about it feels like they’re asking me to say that I’m not friends with that person”

    Yeah, I think that’s actually exactly what some people want to hear…

    I dunno, like you I don’t get it… I think it comes down to how you see the world… whether you see other people as other people.. that is, people just like you, or whether you just see them as forces acting on you…

  5. PixelFish on #

    The version of this that I particularly dislike is that “all women secretly have it in for each other and will be catty about each other just given the chance.” I’ve had this idea put to me several times, often in justification of somebody else’s nasty behaviour, as if that would somehow make me feel better. I don’t get it, because most of my girlfriends growing up were wonderful and supporting and even when it came time for us to compete in similar arenas, we still could cheer each other on.

  6. Brad on #

    It’s a philosophy of scarcity, and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s much worse in smaller cities and towns. In a small town, there are only so many paying gigs for anything at all interesting, so competition and jealousy is fierce. Being friends with someone in the same field can be problematic because if you get the job, then it necessarily follows that your friend didn’t. This is a problem because at a local level, if you have fewer than (say) two million people in your locality, it’s damn near impossible to generate enough interest to support the generation of original material for public consumption.

    As an example, I am currently writing a play for a province-wide playwriting contest, and so are several of my friends. Two of the winning plays will be produced as part of a festival in the summer. If I win, it is definitely at my friends’ expense — there’s no other paying place for their plays to go, locally. In fact, I will be competing directly with the woman whose excellent plays inspired me to get involved with local theatre — and something about that makes me uneasy, because I want to see her play too, if she writes one, and if I win, then that’s one fewer slot for her. But I’d still rather win than not.

    It’s a pretty specific situation, all around, but I think it goes to show that feelings of competition between close friends, however unhealthy they might be, are unavoidable in cases where there is actual scarcity.

  7. marrije on #

    I think Diana’s right about there being more kinds of jealousy. For instance, I’m fantastically envious of John Green’s ability to write really cool girl characters (and really great books). But not in a ‘stop doing that, bloody person’ sort of way, more in a ‘man, I wish I could do that‘ way.

    Not exactly sure that this feeling is totally healthy, mind you, since I mostly sit around being envious and don’t practice so I get better at writing and hence closer to Green’s level of goodness.

  8. SirTessa on #

    (You said ‘poo-head’. Heh.)

  9. jenny d on #

    quite right too!

    (but it must be said that sometimes it is easier than others! i have had one or two times in my life that i am *not* proud of, i hope in every case i concealed it totally & finally worked through the horrible feeling of envy, but it is about the most unpleasant thing i can imagine because of the way that you’re ashamed of yourself as well as feeling horrible!)

    the great novel of this is lionel shriver’s “double fault,” well worth reading if you haven’t–she has said in interviews that though it’s about a pair of professional tennis pairs who are also married to each other [justine, you would really like it, there’s lots of good sport stuff in there] it was really based on a relationship she was in with another writer that was producing in her a corrosive envy of his success and her own lack thereof.

    also good on this topic: kathryn chetkovich’s essay “envy,” about her relationship with jonathan franzen:

  10. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    I also wonder whether this might be different if there were more of a discrepancy between the two partners’ achievements. To take Justine and Scott for an example — one may be selling somewhat more than the other, or winning more awards. But at least at the moment, both of them are writing the books they want to write and getting them published, and having them read. They’re both succeeding, and when that’s true, it’s easier to swallow discrepancies and write it off to the vagaries of the marketplace or whatever. Or with me and Kevin, and the academic job market; it’s easier for me to cope with his having tenure when I have a good visiting professor position somewhere (even if that position pays less than half what his does), than I think it would be if I had simply been roundly rejected everywhere I applied.

    It’s one thing to have different levels of success; that’s just life, and pretty much inevitable. It’s another to see your partner succeeding, while you fail, and fail, and fail again at the work that matters most to you. I think that would be very hard to take, even if you *were* happy for your partner.

  11. Relby on #

    I’ve always found the reverse to be equally true: if I’M cranky when someone else succeeds, then I’m not THEIR friend.

  12. Maggie on #

    “No one would believe us that we were happy for her. They did not understand that we could be disappointed for ourselves and happy for her at the same time.”

    This is so true! My best friend’s a writer and we were recently up against each other for a YA award here in Canada. I said if I had to lose, I would never mind losing to her. And it was true! She did win, and I was so happy for her, but at the same time disappointed for myself.

    Guess for me, though, I have to be careful that I don’t deny my negative feelings altogether (as I sometimes do) as they come back to bite me as back pain. 😉

  13. Diana on #

    Not exactly sure that this feeling is totally healthy, mind you, since I mostly sit around being envious and don’t practice so I get better at writing and hence closer to Green’s level of goodness.

    Yeah, the healthy part comes in when it spurs you to work harder. You know “healthy competition” and all that. Even if it competition the other person doesn’t know about. I’m in constant competition with L.M. Montgomery to write character-specific dialogue as well as she does, and she’s dead.

    And then sometimes there are the situations where you THINK you are friends with someone, but really, you are just keeping tabs on them, and that’s not healthy and I try to steer clear of that.

    For my part though, I’m glad my partner ain’t writing. This apartment is only big enough for one writerly neurosis.

  14. veejane on #

    Why do so many think spouses or siblings or best friends in the same profession are automatically in competition?

    I would have said, because siblings do this all the time on the small scale, and everyone assumes that siblings are best friends (even the siblings themselves), even when they don’t act like friends at all.

    One of the enlightenments of my early 20s was discovering that “friend” (and presumably, similarly “spouse”) is a category of choice, and that I could be a friend to my mother and my sister in addition to being their family.

  15. lili on #

    i think people get caught up in the idea of there being one or the other.

    my mum is an award winning children’s author, and i am totally unbelievably excited when she wins things, or when she gets reviewed in The Times or whatever. as a fledgling author, i want all that too. i want more! but that doesn’t mean i don’t want my mum to have it. it’s a big pond. we can be a dynasty!

    ambition is great (and you’ll get nowhere without it), but after a point it does more damage than good. it’s a fine line. it’s like we need to push ourselves to succeed, but not so hard that we push away others.

  16. Justine on #

    Thanks for all the interesting responses. Much to think about.

    Lili: it’s a big pond. we can be a dynasty!

    That’s exactly how I feel! I mean if it can be a dynasty of people who aren’t all related to each other. I’m so proud every time one of my friends achieves something cool. Like Cecil’s new graphic novel series and Holly winning the Norton last year and all of Scott’s sucesses and my sister’s work on so many different big movies. And I can’t wait for Scatterheart to come out and start wowing everyone. None of those successes takes away from anyone else’s.

  17. Penni on #

    I think success is cumulative anyway – the more people read the more they read, the more successful JK Rowling is, the more money publishers have to support new writers…same goes for movies, art…I kind of look at awards in the same way I look at chook raffles – I mean no one can definitely say ‘this is the best book written between these dates according to this criteria’.

  18. Lauren on #

    Jealousy? Definitely not a problem. I like to hang with people who are better than me.

  19. Justine on #

    Penni: It absolutely is in bookland. But there are areas where there’s only so many grants or fellowships or jobs to go around.

    And awards are exactly like chook raffles!

    Lauren: I like to hang with people who are better than me.

    Wow, that narrows the number of people you can hang out with considerably! Given how fabulous you are.

  20. Ted Lemon on #

    What’s going on here is that everybody has different degrees of emotional intelligence about different things. And you are very, very fortunate in that you are not jealous about other peoples’ accomplishments. People who are jealous aren’t necessarily worse people than you – it’s just that jealosy is their particular mental affliction, whereas yours is perhaps something else. Or perhaps you are perfect.

    So indeed it feels like you aren’t speaking the same language, because what is being expressed is a concept that you can’t conceive, because you are one of those extremely fortunate people for whom this concept doesn’t make sense. Sad to say, not everybody is so fortunate. I am quite capable of feeling let down when someone I love gets something I wanted, even though like you I am also happy for them.

    This is definitely a character flaw, and one on which I am actively working. But hopefully it doesn’t make me an awful person, any more than dissing people who don’t grok cricket makes you an awful person.


  21. Gwenda on #

    The only time I ever truly feel envious of anyone is when they are somewhere warm and lovely and I am somewhere cold and barren.

  22. Justine on #

    Ted Lemon: I didn’t mean to come across as lecturing people about their bad thoughts. Honest! I’m chockfull of bad thoughts, me. It’s just acting on those thoughts that’s a problem. And I’m a bit over folks telling me how I should feel about people I love. I’m fully in touch with my own feelings, thanks very much.

    Gwenda: I hear you! It’s snowing right now. I’m deeply envious of all my friends back home where it is emphatically not snowing. Lucky bastards!

  23. Ted Lemon on #

    Don’t worry, I didn’t feel lectured. My point was just that in fact it’s quite possible to feel jealous of a friend, and it doesn’t make you not a friend. Mostly it’s just a pain in the neck. It would be great to be completely free of that particular thought.

  24. Chris on #

    I do not understand why most others and others generally are of jealous character since there is no exception in that true character is good. Excess is bad for me too, but I don’t fear jealousy, it is almost nothing, so is madness; however, if you go too much beyond say “grease the movie” you will never be cured: I tried once to go 18 times and had to back down to 4 then 1, my nightamres where unbearable, it is still is that way.

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