Hello Kitty Pencils and Bleach Stains: Reflections on Jealousy and Contentment

A faithful reader has asked me to write on the subject of jealousy. She grew up in a family full of warmth and easy affection. Then she married, and was startled by the culture of jealousy in her new family. Who was spending time with whom, and how much, and why her, not me? She found it difficult to maneuver family relationships without hurting someone’s feelings.

On the surface, jealousy feels like a finely honed weapon that illuminates the disloyalty or fickleness of someone we care for, or their greed or lack of gratitude. Jealousy is rather more a canary in the coal mine, twittering at the first sign our own weaknesses and insecurities, our fragility. Take the case of the Hello Kitty pencils, 5th grade.

Leigh was my classmate, and she had just about everything Hello Kitty a 10-year-old girl could have. Erasers and stickers, little notes, and super skinny, kitty-emblazoned pink pencils in a pink pencil case. Me? Maybe a pencil scrounged from the bottom of the junk drawer, pens I picked up on the sidewalks walking around school. (This, actually, turned out to be a quite thrifty habit I continued through college.)

GreedyGirlLeigh also had what seemed like 10 pairs of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, some with white piping, all with embroidered gold swans on the front pockets, little gold badges of 5th grade sartorial distinction.

The fact I can tell you what I was wearing that day might elucidate the intensity of the jealousy I felt towards Leigh. While I do not remember exactly, but it was one of two things:  a pair of jeans that gone at least a week without washing, or my painter pants overalls, off-white. I loved those overalls; they were all I had besides that other pair of jeans. I felt quite haute couture wearing them.

We weren’t poor, exactly. My mother was always stylishly dressed with platinum blonde hair. What little money she had and effort she expeneded after her divorce from my father went towards her own appearance.

One morning before school, looking for clothes, I found my overalls in the washing machine. Having been left wet overnight, or longer, rust stains had bled out from the buckles onto the straps and bib. And bleach had splashed on one of the pant legs, leaving a splatter of larger and smaller white splotches like the Galapagos Islands.

I can still remember gasping the moment I saw the rust, can feel the deepening despair at the bleach spots, the smell of damp and mildew coming from the open washer in the corner of the kitchen. I did all I could do—I threw the overalls in the dryer and wore them to school that day.

Leigh was wearing a pair of her sassy jeans, a pair with some sort of stitching I especially envied.  “That pair looks really good on you,” I said.

“They all do!” she popped back.  GAH!

Jealousy is ugly. Even its synonyms in the thesaurus are ugly:  envy, resentfulness, malevolence, covetousness, invidiousness, spite. In 5th grade I couldn’t have named these feelings, but I had them. And Leigh’s affluence and stylishness were not faults to be corrected.  My ugly feelings sprung from my own sense of want.

Everyone whom thou persuest with envy can run and slip away from thee, but thou canst not run away from thyself.”

   St. Basil the Great

Fast forward twenty-five years, driving up to my house a few years after my dad died.  My neighbor’s father was at the end of the cul-de-sac playing basketball with her kids.  My prettier, thinner neighbor, who had a living father.  Zing! Instant negative thoughts.  She has no idea how good she has it, her father being young and healthy.  No idea. Sh$t!

Jealous? Yes.  Because her good fortune—a healthy father— reminded me of the devastating loss of my father, of my children’s loss of a grandfather. Her father loving his grandchildren, fodder for a Norman Rockwell painting, hurt like a hot poker.

The opposite of jealousy is contentment. How could I be contented with a dead father? G.K. Chesterton writes,

“Being contented ought to mean in English, as it does in French, being pleased. Being content with an attic ought not to mean being unable to move from it and resigned to living in it; it ought to mean appreciating all there is in such a position.”

13635565393_a44157ef1f_kGrief is a drafty, uncomfortable old attic. What was there to appreciate? I could be content to have had a loving father at all, one who was tender and supportive, who taught me the dignity of hard work and a love of animals and who literally saved my life. Twice. I could be content to have children, to whom I could, hopefully, pass his legacy of love and acceptance and self-sufficiency.

To move away from jealousy is to look inward at the empty spaces from which it springs, to sit with the pain mindfully, and to ever-so-gently tease a thread of gratitude out of the ache.

And what about Leigh and her Hello Kitty pencil set and fancy jeans, my pretty blonde neighbor with her hearty father who is still young and healthy, God bless him, what about them? And Sofia Vergara? What about her?

I defer to St. John Vianney:

Ah! my children, let us, then, be good Christians and we shall no more envy the good fortune of our neighbour; we shall never speak evil of him; we shall enjoy a sweet peace; our soul will be calm; we shall find paradise on earth.  

If we remain in contentment, remain in charity towards those whose good fortune tempts us to forget our own blessings, we shall be rewarded with calm and sweet peace.