Envy’s Appetite

I have been avoiding one of my closest friends for a while now, and I am running out of excuses for why we can’t meet up, having run through everything from head cold to smacked with deadlines to oral surgery (I panicked, it was the first thing that came to mind). I love her. I do. But lately I feel like I can’t even talk to her.

She’s been struggling for a while, and I am sympathetic. She’s been single for years and years (I don’t understand it, she’s beautiful and smart and so funny), and she’s been struggling at work. And somewhere in all that she just changed. Suddenly it’s like I’m the enemy. I can’t understand, she says, because I have never struggled like she’s struggled. I’m married, and so I don’t understand loneliness. I have everything in the world. Whereas every bad thing that happens to her is the worst thing ever, and nothing good in her life really matters. It never stops! I want my friend back. I want her to stop hating me.

When I was sixteen, I was completely obsessed with a singer named Gavin Friday. Everything he did I thought was brilliant and had never, ever been done before. And in his song “Apologia,” he has this line, “Envy eats nothing but its own,” which, man, I thought was deep. I am pretty sure I wrote that on my Trapper Keeper. Years later, I find out it’s actually a German proverb, and he left off a word. The whole thing is “Envy eats nothing but its own heart.”

Now I have a feeling both are true. Envy can be a completely self-destructive mode to go into, but there’s also something very saturnine about it. Saturn, as you’ll recall, was the Titan who chose to eat his own children out of fear of their future power. You can end up destroying your potential for change before it comes to anything.

But in this case, you’re the target of your friend’s envy, and that can be equally burdensome. Because envy aimed in your direction tends to flatten you out: it takes away the essential you of you. Everything you’ve struggled with, every pain and sacrifice is simply excised, discounted as insignificant. All that remains are the attributes that she wants. All you are is proof that life is somehow being unfair to her and withholding from her what it has gifted to you. No wonder you want to avoid her, it must feel like she’s shredding layers of you away.

What this reminded me of is the dynamic that drives Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room. In her novel, the narrator is dealing with a troublesome, self-deluding, high-maintenance house guest who happens to be dying of cancer. You’re dealing with someone going through a hard time, while you (presumably) are doing okay. And in either situation, the last thing one is “supposed” to do is throw a fit. One is supposed to selflessly accept the troubled person’s behavior, no matter how destructive, and no matter what it does to one’s own spirit. And yet, what Garner reveals about what it’s like to be the sole caretaker is exactly what it’s like to be the supportive one in your friendship. It sounds a little like trying to hug a crocodile: It might need the affection, and even be desperate for it, but it’s gonna take a chunk out of you if you try.

Garner has always been a genius about the fraught female friendship. And she will reassure you that you’re allowed to get angry at your friend in crisis. Even to the point of nearly sliding “into a lime pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.” You’re also allowed to have a life of your own, a life that you should enjoy without guilt, and a full range of emotions toward this other person — the nasty ones right alongside the generous impulses. If your friend is ready to remove the bits of you that she finds inconvenient, there’s no sense in helping her along.

If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at kindreaderbn@gmail.com.

Illustration by Thea Brine.