I was going to try finish reading Practical Mysticism but my emotions are such that they will interfere with every activity, with every leisure, until they themselves, engaging the sweep of my attention, are instead laid on the table and perused squarely. And because I really want to get on with the things I enjoy today – because I want to reclaim my ability to enjoy them – I must pay these riotous rogues the formal courtesy of hearing what it is they have to say.
And leading today’s hearing is (surprise, surprise) a familiar figure I’ve recurrently identified by the name of Jealousy. He tells he was compelled to join the mob out of mischievously playful impulse to thwart my mounting ambition. To stifle, if not belittle, whatever little successes I procured. To drive me to compare myself unfavourably with others. To steal from me the conviction and purposiveness that underpinned my active quotidian life. To “unshackle” me from the throes of an ever-expanding perspective – an increasing self-donation – and thrust me back into the “freedom” of a condensed self-attention. An improvement-deterring self-absorption. Essentially, his goal, he says with a winning smug, is to amplify, with devastating effects, my ever-looming feelings of self-worthlessness. And to that end, he has been successful. At the moment, anyway.
I think I first heard word of Jealousy’s mutiny during a conversation I had with my friend, Sebastian (and lest this isn’t clear enough to you, Sebastian is a real person, not a name I’ve weirdly designated one of my emotions). We had been discussing the quality of education some of our mutual friends and acquaintances were privileged with when he asked me, albeit rather innocently, whether Katherine – Katherine is something of a hipster lass with an easygoing sense of humour (she’s also a casual beaut, to my greater dismay) – was a student at one of the Oxbridge schools. I, as someone studying in the Philippines, self-deprecatingly answered, “Nooo. Oh my gosh, Sebastian, do you hold her in so high a regard?”. We laughed it off. My response was meant to sound frivolously blunt without sounding forthrightly bitter. But of course, in my experience, prompt humour must mask some ready intimation of truth and that truth, in that mind-clarifying moment, was that I really was, for some reason, jealous that my intimate – that many people, in fact – implicitly thought so well of Katherine. She was pretty (even if conventionally), smart (again, even if conventionally), agreeable, funny and most of all socially-at-ease (a trait which, if you’ve kept up with previous posts of mine, you’ll know I sorely lack). All these traits mystifyingly converged towards a potent point of personality and the effect was an all-round charm that was immune to differences in taste in whomever she met. That is to say, it seemed that nearly everyone, regardless of ethnic background or age or what have you, (unfortunately) took to this chic chica in some degree.
During that social transaction, Jealousy caught wind of my detours to the Land of Self-Improvement and then clandestinely mapped out the place’s most attractive features according to Katherine’s greatest strengths. No longer was I traversing the ruined roads of my personality looking for ways in which to repair them so as to make them functional again. So as to regain access to the sacred, undisturbed heart which mystics called the True Self. No, I veered off course, to the lofty heights and bright lights of Katherine’s getting a blonde, blue-eyed boyfriend and Katherine’s being admitted into a world-class school. I could care less, by that point, for the subpar material and tools I had been endowed with upon entering this Land of Self-Improvement, I wanted those that Katherine used to build all that bore her name. But that just wasn’t how things worked around here, it seemed. Regardless, I continued my attempts to replicate in form and formidability the elusively arresting pillars and structures before my eyes. It was an enterprise doomed from the start, yes, but Katherine’s apparent “winning-at-life-ness” was, for a time, enough to keep me at it pathologically. I religiously measured the value of what I built, my successes, by how much it resembled hers. Of course, my constructions never did perfectly match hers and I took this to mean that they were therefore more, uh, architecturally inferior. Eventually, my ambition was crippled by a fear that I could never fashion something as magnificent, nay, even something uniquely my own. Because my material and tools didn’t obey my vision, I called them defective and discarded them amongst the debris of my destitute personality. I was done investing in what was impossible; it was time to
run from leave this shaming place, to hit the road again, to return to the relieving monotony of daily life where I could forget my failures in endless distractions, one of which was of course my reading.
But Jealousy wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily (obviously, since I am here). It was the classic ironic error where the vigorous efforts of an emotion’s attention-seeking increased in proportion to one’s efforts at turning a blind ear. Silencing him just didn’t settle the matter; my underhanded spurning of him only made him more vividly seen. It was what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said in his essay, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
I was too much of a sloth to address the issues indexed by Jealousy’s vocality. I didn’t want to face the realities he, in his prying and preying on and prattling, unveiled for me. The issue, I repeatedly saw perspicuously in the past but had comfortably set aside for a time, was less “Katherine’s better than me” than “I’m a good-for-nothing.” It was less “Katherine’s got a boyfriend” than “Am I unloveable?”. It was less “Katherine attends a more celebrated college than I do” than “I’m not intelligent enough to get into schools of the same stature.” It was less “Katherine’s more effortlessly funny” than “I’m incorrigibly plain.” Under the context of a fundamental belief in my valuelessness, I magnified – and, to an extent, manufactured – every inequality of merit between us two. Jealousy’s intrusions, I now say half-gratefully, have alerted me to the resilient existence of that self-limiting ideology. I just hope that this essay, the attempted summary of his testimony, will have satisfied him so that, within the next few days (or weeks), he will abate his assaults so that I can figure out, with a clear, undistracted mind, how I’m going to contend with his revelations.