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Chance Thoughts
by Sue Chance, M.D.
March 1997

Jealousy

As usual, I've been working on a book. It's an addiction with me-can't sell the blessed things, but I write constantly nonetheless. And what I've been writing about this go-round is jealousy. It's a terrific literary theme and one which is never exhausted, given the fact people never exhaust their capacity for it.

Perhaps it goes without saying that part of the reason it endures in literature is that it's also often the theme of an endless morality play-life. We all know it ill becomes us, but the bugaboos of uncertainty and insecurity plague us nonetheless. Live long enough and someone will reject you. Someone will prefer another over you.

When it comes to jealousy in literature, I think of Steinbeck's East of Eden, when one son, who is the object of his brother's jealousy because their father loves him more, is expressing his guilt to a wise older friend, and the wise man says, "Even God had a preference," and uses Cain and Abel to illustrate his point.

It seems to me that Americans have a belief in even-handedness that's supposed to take care of this. All men are created equal, we assert. Well, yeah. But don't we know that's an abstraction? That it is the intrinsic value of each human life we are asserting, and not an equal distribution of favors and talents. God makes some people prettier than others, and some people make themselves prettier than others. And, no, I don't mean that in the narrow sense of a bonny face.

Othello is, of course, the alpha and omega of jealousy and I borrowed from it for yet another of my unpublished books. I'm not sure why Shakespeare made it green-eyed, given its commonality, but there's a line in that play that just about curls my hair:

O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey 'd monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

Of course, the Bard was never limited by a sole viewpoint, and he gave it more perspective in The Merchant of Venice, saying:

How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embrac 'd despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-ey 'd jealousy.

Puts jealousy in the right company, doesn't it? Shakespeare endures because he was a genius at stating what we are and what drives us. So hundreds of years later, we read those lines and acknowledge that we are always done in by those particular passions-that if we are not alert and don't govern ourselves properly, we will be blown hither and thither by our worst doubts, our corrosive depressions, our terrors and our jealousy. We know this is not healthy. In fact, when people habitually capitulate to those things, we call it mental illness.

Remember the old model for paranoia? "I love him." (Reject) "I hate him." (Reject) "He hates me." (Accept) Who knows? I'm convinced psychotic-level paranoia has a neurochemical basis, but the fabric of organization is made up of thoughts and feelings that are common to us all. We want possession of our loved objects. If we can't have that, either because it rejects us or it is unacceptable to us, we are likely to go down the path of hating it. And if hating is a no-no, which it so often is, then we decide all that bad stuff must be emanating from some other source. In the simple paradigm above, it's the object itself. In our more complex lives, it often becomes a third party, without whose intervention none of this mess would've befallen us.

There is a spectrum here, obviously. I've done some volunteer work in a women's shelter and there you have jealousy run amok. "Don't have anyone or anything but me," is the message these women have heard and finally run from. "I will tell you when to breathe," is another. I don't label that as insecurity and jealousy, which it is, but rather as "sick," "deviant," "outrageous" and "unacceptable," which it also is, and which is a good deal more utilitarian in that setting. Those women often gaze at me in stupefaction. Gosh, you mean it's not okay? You think he's the problem? It's a case of jealousy institutionalized into a prisoner of war camp; and just like POWs, these women stumble out into freedom, dazed. Also like POWs, they suffer from posttraumatic stress syndromes.

Then we have the other end of the spectrum, which creates the mischief I call "us and them." My neighboring country has the better water/land/jobs/climate/holy relics/etc., and it should belong to me, deserving soul that I am. It used to-an assertion which is usually true in some sense, given the rise and fall of civilizations. Anyway, it comes down to a decision to not only go knock them in the head and take the goodies, but to justify us for doing this. It's akin to the concept H.G. Wells was getting at when he said, "Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo." You get to be jealous and feel smug at the same time. What a boon!

Let me go back to Othello to close, Shakespeare being so sublime.

Jealous souls will not be answer 'd so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous.