| Green With Envy |
By Shira Boss
Genre: Business & Money
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Green with Envy
It started even before the couple next door moved in. The comparison. The envy.
My husband and I live in a relatively small apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the gossip—the news, as it were—traffics in our cramped elevator or basement laundry room. Behind its thirty doors, our building houses a flutist, a filmmaker, lawyers (both corporate and public sector), interior designers, a nurse, an accountant, a grad student, an expatriate retiree who feeds the birds in Central Park, and the usual coterie of mystery inhabitants: They’re around, even during the weekdays, they own cars (unusual in this area, where parking spaces start at $400 per month), they seem to be supporting themselves comfortably, but we’re not sure how. The building has units from rectangular studios to penthouse two-bedrooms. Perhaps what sets the residents apart the most is how long each has lived here. Considering how real estate values have tumbled upward in recent years, the newcomers are consistently quite a bit better off than those of us already here. Five years after moving in, for example, our mortgage—the one we stretched our debt-to-income ratio to the absolute outside limit to get—is about equal to what the down payment would be now.
In this environment, the most prized fruit of the grapevine is which apartment is being sold, and for how much. So when our neighbors right next door to us put their place on the market, you can be sure we were interested in who was moving in, and at what price.
And then we heard. In the elevator. The seller told me that a young couple our age was buying it—for over the asking price—and that they were paying cash.
Somebody’s daddy has some money! our neighbor guessed.
Yeah, I guess so. We couldn’t imagine living mortgage-free at our age in Manhattan. And most of our friends couldn’t imagine owning any property here at all. We had been the envy of our friends for having scraped together a down payment and bargaining our way into a mortgage. But hearing about our new neighbors, who would have no mortgage at all, we were the ones who felt kind of behind. And certainly mystified. We couldn’t help but wonder where that kind of money was coming from.
There were two possibilities as to how the buyers accomplished this very large cash purchase, and my husband and I speculated about them at length. Either, as the seller thought, Mommy and Daddy helped them out by writing an enormous check (and that’s how we referred to them, “Mommy and Daddy,” as opposed to when our parents helped us out, in which case they were referred to simply as “our parents”); or they belonged to that dreaded class of twentysomething dot-com millionaires. We weren’t sure which was preferable. Both seemed frustratingly undeserved.
We met. We had been ready to be annoyed by them, for them to be privileged, East Egg people, or intolerable hipsters, but actually John and Tina were very nice, apparently normal people. They seemed like a quirkily mismatched couple: Tina, a petite, brunette Italian, had a stylish haircut and wore chic clothes surely from a downtown boutique. John, a taller, blond, we-soon-learned Upper West Side Jewish native, seemed more like a kindred spirit to me. He had just gotten out of a PhD program for geography (we got that bit of info from looking them up on Google) and dressed simply in jeans and flannel shirts. They seemed to go to work in the morning like everyone else. I had visions of becoming good friends and living like the two couples on the 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, always dropping in on each other. We put their finances out of our minds. None of our business, we told ourselves.
Then on a Friday afternoon I ran into Tina waiting in the lobby of our building with a small (new, chic) suitcase.
Going away for the weekend? I asked.
Yeah, I’m just waiting for John to bring the car around. We need so many things for the apartment—we’re going antiquing Upstate.
Antiquing? Who uses antique as a verb? I wondered. Does it mean the same thing as hitting flea markets for neat old stuff? Because I would have been fine with hearing that, but the idea of our young neighbors going on an antiquing spree—when, years after moving in, we were still waiting to buy something to cover our windows—reminded me instantly of their wealth, and that they could afford to do things differently.
After making smalltalk about antiquing, I turned to the elevator and pushed the call button, but I was interrupted by a question:
Can you recommend a good cleaning lady?
I froze. We all have different definitions of financial success, and mine is being able to afford a cleaning lady. I had a boyfriend once who lived in his parents’ six-bedroom place off Park Avenue, with a live-in cook and a cleaning lady who spent every other day scouring the apartment. It was like living in a 5-star hotel, or what I imagined that would be like. Thick white towels were always folded and fresh. When you threw anything into any wastebasket, it blinked back at you from the bottom. Clutter never had a chance. Nor dust, nor dirty dishes. The best part was that my boyfriend never had to give any of these chores a thought. To my mind he dwelled in housekeeping nirvana: total comfort, zero effort.
My husband and I have had the usual “discussions” about keeping our home clean, and not even clean clean, but just keeping it from sliding into squalor. We’ve often ended up with the solution that if we paid somebody else to do the dirty work even now and then, we wouldn’t have this tension. I’ve heard that solution from married people and read it in women’s magazines: “Hire a cleaner. It’ll save you hundreds in therapy bills!” But it has always felt financially impossible. Money that would go to a cleaner could be put toward a dozen more important things. Necessary things. Later, we end up saying, when we have enough money.
But our new neighbors, they evidently already had enough money, and they could afford a cleaning lady.
Rather than play along, I decided to confront the envy by just being frank.
No, I told her. Actually, it’s my dream to have a cleaning lady, though.
Tina, being a nice person, tried to make me feel better by saying, Yeah, it’s been so long since we’ve had one.
So what’s changed recently? I wanted to know. Whence these cleaning lady funds?
I’m not proud to recount my conversation later with my husband. Antiquing? I mocked. And who keeps a car in the city, anyway? That’s ridiculous. It’s cheaper to rent one whenever you need it. Insurance, parking, not to mention the cost of the car itself—what’s the point of paying for all of that when you can hardly ever use a car here anyway?
My husband’s response was even more delicious. Well, we know how they can afford it, he said smugly. Without a mortgage, we could afford a lot of extra things too.
From then on, every expenditure we noticed—packages arriving seemingly daily from Bloomingdale’s and Restoration Hardware, hiring someone to repaint their apartment, the installation of the antiques!—it was all dismissed as “mortgage money.”
They are the Joneses, and we are not keeping up. However much we understand that we are not—not, under any circumstance—to covet our neighbor’s anything or to attempt to keep up with the Joneses, we can’t seem to help it. We are gripped by this involuntary urge, a drive to compare and compete that is ingrained, at least in Americans, if not all people.
We have been challenging ourselves to keep up with the Joneses for time eternal, even though it frays our nerves and is a quest without any destination. We know we shouldn’t do it, we try not to, yet we find it irresistible.
It’s not just that we want more for ourselves but that we specifically want more than, or at least as much as, what others have. That’s how we know how much we deserve: It depends on what the other guy has. Since the days of Cain and Abel we have been bickering and jostling over who has the better lot. Wealth and well-being are largely a mindset, and how we’re doing in relation to the company we keep is key to our contentment.
It would seem logical that the people we envy the most would be those at the top of the ladder, the rich and famous. It’s true that we are fascinated by the wealthy and celebrities, and might fantasize about living their lives, but we are driven by just that, curiosity and fantasizing. We don’t really expect that with enough hard work and some good luck we will end up with millions in the bank and our whereabouts splashed across the cover of People magazine. It might happen to some, but we don’t count on it.
Who we truly envy are our closest peers. Psychologist Herbert Hyman defined this phenomenon in 1942 in an article titled “The Psychology of Status.” He said we compare ourselves within “reference groups” of those around us and who are similar to us. We look to our classmates, our co-workers, our siblings and our neighbors to see how we measure up and, secretly, who we must catch up with. The super rich and famous have too many variables for us to match, but those with similar backgrounds to ours, with similar advantages and opportunities, those are the people we believe we should be able to match. When one among us breaks away and does much better financially, we feel put down. We want some kind of explanation. Are they just smarter? Did they make better decisions? Why them and not us? Is this fair, after all?
Our visions of success are built on a scaffolding of comparison, and planked with envy. Envy is the only vice warned against in both the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins. In Dante’s purgatory, the closest rung to hell is pride, the second closest is envy. Manhattan therapist Anita Weinreb Katz describes envy like this: “You want what that person has, and you want to destroy the person who has it. It’s a very primitive feeling.”
It’s not pretty. We’re certainly not proud of it, and usually don’t want to admit that we are in its jaws. That leads us straight into troublesome secrecy. The don’t ask, don’t tell policy of life that lets us live around other people. On the rare occasion that someone admits bald-faced envy, we nearly crumble with commiseration and relief. A treasured quote from writer Gore Vidal: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” We can laugh that off as an artistic temperament, but when we’re honest with ourselves we know that there is more there, that we suffer similarly, by letting our relative positions in our various groups affect our well-being, whether we mean to or not. So we can’t help ourselves from quietly scoping others’ situations, from private investigating to figure out what others have and, consequently, what we should have too.
Tina invited me over for a late-afternoon glass of wine, to get further acquainted. My Honeymooners plan was progressing. As we walked up the stairs to her living room, she asked me what I do and I told her I’m a journalist.
Really? she asked. She seemed excited by it, and I felt proud that my job impressed her. Then she announced, I work for the New York Times!
No way! I said, while I really did think to myself, NO WAY! A competitive mushroom popped out at me like an airbag. I might not care about her wearing better clothes, but when it comes to career I didn’t need competition living next door, on staff at the Times. Forget the Honeymooners, that was two generations ago. Times were gentler. I wanted to go back down the stairs and ignore our new neighbors and their wealthy parents and paid-for apartment forevermore.
Instead, I kept up the conversation with a dry throat: You’re a reporter too? What do you cover?
No, I work in Web development.
Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. She is not a journalist! I do not have to read her articles in the paper, talk shop, or keep up in any way! What a relief. We can be friends again. Maybe I’ll knock on the door to borrow half a cup of sugar one day. I even scoffed a little at Web development. Boring, I thought.
My relief was short-lived. By the time we reached the top of the stairs it came to me: Web development . . . the Internet . . . dot-com millionaire.
Everyone heard stories of twentysomething millionaires minted in the late 1990s. They couldn’t be avoided. They were on television, they were on the covers of magazines, and there weren’t just a few junior moguls, they seemed to be everywhere. The economy was shaken up like a snow globe, and money really did seem to grow on trees, there for the plucking. The idea of building up a career or business through years of hard work was actually mocked. People used to ask me what I was doing still writing for newspapers and magazines, those relics: Why didn’t I get an Internet job?
Seeing our peers get enormously wealthy on stock options was, to say the least, irksome. We were just as smart and educated and ambitious—how was it fair that they were so much more successful financially? It shouldn’t be any of our business how much money our cohorts make, or how they do it. Why do we chip away at clues, then, building a financial profile of our friends and figuring out where we fit on the scale?
In the United States, at least, where productivity is valued more highly than anything and is generally measured in dollars, this comparison and competition is inbred. It feeds the system. The drive to consume more, to have more and better things, and continually to raise our level of comfort, is stronger here than any other place on earth.
The American Dream itself—the novel system in which every one of us, regardless of background, is not only able but expected to move up, to do better and have more—is at its heart about competition. We’re trained to gaze up one level from where we are and to aspire to get what those people have. Once we accomplish that much, we’re looking up again. By cultural design, there is no end to it.
Setting our goals based on what others are doing goes even deeper than human nature. Fleas, for instance, do some keeping up with the Joneses of their own. They are the world’s highest jumpers. When you put a population of fleas into a box and put the lid on, a few times they’ll jump up and donk their heads on the ceiling. Pretty quickly, though, they learn to jump just as high as the ceiling without hitting it. Take the lid off and they still won’t jump any higher—until a new flea moves into the box who doesn’t know anything about the old lid. The new flea jumps to great heights. The others see it. Then they all start jumping higher again.
Climbing over the Joneses isn’t only a social and financial phenomenon but an economic one. Moving up is our reward for hard work. Desire and envy are the engines that keep us going. Trade up. Earn more. Improve. This is what keeps our capitalist economy throbbing. So while we’re told not to attempt to keep up with the Joneses, tsk-tsk, we’re also shown that that is exactly what we should do. If we all minded our own business, if we were all content with our lot as it is, the economy would slow and our standard of living—which we measure, for the most part, in things—would tumble. “An economy primarily driven by growth must generate discontent,” writes psychologist Paul Wachtel in The Poverty of Affluence. “We cannot be content or the entire economic machine would grind to a halt.”
The trouble is that what’s good for the whole is not necessarily healthy for us as individuals. As Wachtel describes it, “Our personal lives run aground on the perpetual generation of desire and discontent.” Americans are working longer hours and earning more money than ever before, but the reward in terms of greater satisfaction with our lives has failed to materialize. A survey asked who in America feels they have achieved the American Dream. Among those earning less than $15,000 per year, only 5 percent agreed. What about among those earning more than $50,000, which is the top half of the American public? A near tie, at 6 percent. In the Bible a teacher says, “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Keeping up with the Joneses puts us on a never-ending, stomach-yanking roller coaster. And we bring it on ourselves.
As soon as John and Tina got back from their tropical honeymoon, she quit her job at the Times. The economy was in the midst of a major slump. Nobody who had a job was complaining, or at least nobody was quitting. But that’s what dot-com millionairehood was all about: You did what you enjoyed, you worked while it was exciting, and then whenever you felt like it, you walked away. And so she did.
She was in the right industry at the right time, that’s for sure, my husband said with a sigh.
Contrasting our situation with theirs was painful. Tina talked about how they would soon start “popping out the kids.” The idea of us having children ourselves, while attractive in theory, seemed practically impossible. We figured John and Tina probably did argue, like everyone, but they probably didn’t argue about money stress, like we did. It wasn’t the material goodies we grew envious of, it was the ease with which they seemed to be able to live. From the clues we collected, John and Tina seemed able to afford a psychological lifestyle that, to our disappointment, far surpassed ours. While our lives felt suffocatingly on hold while we straightened out our financial issues, our next-door neighbors, at our age, were living carefree, apparently enjoying life and each other to the fullest.
As for us, after meeting each other in the Middle East, we spent two years in a very long-distance relationship. A lot of our funds went toward plane tickets and phone calls. After we got engaged, one of us had to move. He earned enough as an engineer to support us in his country, but I didn’t speak the language at the time, and even though I had worked there for several months it had been quite stressful. English wasn’t a problem for him, though, and we figured his European degree and engineering background were marketable anywhere. He would relocate and look for a job as a management consultant. At that time the economy was booming; there weren’t enough workers to go around. As one of my friends assured me, Your nail salon woman could get a job as a consultant.
Except it didn’t work out that way. He started job searching at what turned out to be the very beginning of the recession. Rather suddenly, everyone seemed to be cutting back rather than hiring. He looked for work for a full year before starting something entrepreneurial.
This was far from a fun time in our life. The first and most obvious challenge was that we hadn’t planned on living on one income for very long. Certainly not one journalist’s income. Even a successful writer’s income is not designed to support two people in Manhattan. We considered moving, but it seemed a drastic measure for what we thought was surely a temporary problem. Instead we budgeted, itself a challenge when there is not a regular paycheck to allocate. As I have often joked about being freelance, living paycheck to paycheck is especially hard when you don’t know when, exactly, the next paycheck is coming. We stopped going out, and since so few New Yorkers entertain at home, avoiding going out meant we didn’t see friends very often. We spent a lot of time sulking.
That led into the second problem: keeping up appearances. One does not set out actually to lie about unemployment or financial stress, but they’re not polite or comfortable subjects. And since my husband had started a company and was no longer actively job searching, people probably assumed he was doing fine. For my part, I didn’t want to complain to friends about us not having enough money because they would guess it was due to my husband—since I was still working as I had—and that felt like an invasion of his privacy. It’s not nice to complain, even worse to blame. We are taught that financial problems are personal, and they are especially personal when they involve a third party not participating in the conversation.
So when people did ask how my husband’s work was going, I found myself replying Good! With my family we kept matters equally oblique. They surely picked up hints that we weren’t doing great (like when we mentioned we might just skip going home for Thanksgiving), but we didn’t go out of our way to explain the situation and they didn’t ask. Even in the twenty-first century, it is expected that a man, if not the sole support of his family, should contribute at least half of the household income. Even though there are alternative arrangements that are increasingly accepted, in general men who don’t earn the socially prescribed amount have an element of shame to contend with that women do not experience. So I didn’t feel entitled to disclose our details, especially since he had relocated halfway around the world specifically for our relationship. In the meantime, I endured some conversations like this one with my older sister. On the telephone, I complained vaguely about not being able to afford something, but she cut me off abruptly:
It must be nice to have two incomes, though!
I could have asked her what second income she was referring to, but instead I just sighed and hedged and hinted, common tactics when it comes to discussing money.
Well, I said, it feels like supporting two people on one income.
No kidding that’s what it felt like, because that’s what was going on. I just couldn’t come out with the truth.
Privately, money was making our life miserable. I got itchy and irritable trying to work in a home office with someone else at home. He left when he could, but without being able to afford recreation, he resorted to wandering the streets or sitting alone in the park. It made matters worse that he had left his entire social circle behind to move here.
Determined to be responsible, we tracked our expenses in detail. But when we saw how much money we really needed to be making every month to cover our fixed and necessary expenses, we got depressed and stopped keeping track. Overwhelmed, my husband abandoned exercising and gained weight. I became a nagger. To keep pace financially, I took on more work than I could reasonably handle, and late at night, to get my mind off of the stress, I went to bed hiding behind the latest Harry Potter.
A couple of times I went trolling the Internet for some kind of support. Surely there had to be somebody talking about this kind of situation, about handling the social side of financial problems. Wasn’t there a money doctor out there who could make us feel better?
I had never before understood why money is the often-cited number-one reason for marital trouble and divorce. I had guessed it meant that couples, having two separate personalities, couldn’t come to terms on how to handle the household money. Through experience, I realized that it is money itself, as a very real character in our lives—a companion that is as cranky, consuming, and irresistible as any lover—that causes the strife. It’s the secrecy, the shame, the acting, the convoluted psychology of it all. We live in an ultra-open culture that freely shares our most intimate concerns—but rarely when they involve money. When it comes to the intersection of our personal finances and the orbit of the world outside our front doors, we are suddenly starved of the information that gushes on any other topic. I knew that other people were in our same shape, miserable because of their financial situations and even more so from the stress of covering them up, from leading a kind of double life. But how to communicate with those people? I couldn’t even find them on the Internet, which meant that for all practical purposes we were indeed alone.
As for my friends, even though I was not direct with them about what was happening with us, I felt let down that they did not read between the lines and figure it out for themselves. I expected support and some kind of commiseration, even though their openly acknowledging the situation might have been embarrassing. In the meantime, their own endowments bothered me in a way they never had before: Every time a friend openly indulged herself, I was reminded that I couldn’t afford to do so. I started wanting things I had never even wanted before, merely because I knew I couldn’t have them.
The problem we grappled with that became the most damaging was the eventual rise of resentment. These were the first two years of our marriage. That we were being cheated out of what was supposed to be one of the most wonderful times in our lives frustrated me. What did we do to deserve this? I wondered. Through my gray-tinted glasses, every other couple on Broadway seemed to be having the time of their lives. I was sure that come Monday morning, each went off to their respective jobs, and when they got home they frolicked. I imagined their lives as cozy and romantic, not consumed by financial worries. Everyone is enjoying life but us, I convinced myself, even as I knew it wasn’t really true. I laughed bitterly when I read an item in a women’s magazine about how if a man earns less money than his partner does it often damages the couple’s sex life.
In the midst of our angst, John and Tina, to our eyes, fit right into this carefree, honeymoon mold. So even though we had resolved to concentrate on minding our own business, Tina quitting her job to extract every second of joy out of life seemed to us like some sort of personal insult.
We were feeding our frustration with assumptions. If we had hunted down statistics and believed that they referred to just some of the people in our own circle, and if we could have heard them describe their own struggles, we wouldn’t have felt so isolated.
In fact, we were far from the only ones living paycheck to paycheck. One survey reported that most households are doing so sometimes, most of the time, or always. The American Psychological Association recently reported a survey that showed money to be the number-one stress in our lives. The country as a whole owes $800 billion on its credit cards, making an average balance of more than $7,500 for each household if we divided up the debt among all of us. So some of that must belong to households right next to ours. Every year, the National Opinion Research Center asks people whether they are better or worse off financially than the previous year, and consistently, millions declare themselves worse off. In a recent survey, 78 percent of respondents said their debts were “making their home life unhappy.”
We say we know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but we don’t seem to believe it. We want more, and the more we get the more we want. According to research presented in the book The Overspent American, “Among those making $30,000 or less, 81 percent said they would need less than 20 percent more income to be satisfied, while only 40 percent of those in the $75,000+ category would be satisfied with a 20 percent increase.”
We certainly were not the only ones whose relationship was being strained by financial issues. We’ve all heard that money is the leading cause of problems in marriages. Some research on bankruptcy shows that couples who file for bankruptcy are at least twice as likely to file for divorce as the general population.
As for unemployment, the fallout it causes, ranging from temporary malaise to social and emotional implosion, is a shared experience but one that isn’t discussed openly. “People who have lived through downward mobility,” explains a book on the subject written by an anthropologist, “are often secretive and cloistered or so bewildered by their fate that they find it hard to explain to themselves, let alone to others, what has befallen them.” Therefore most of us don’t hear about it, don’t understand it, and are never prepared for handling it.
My husband’s and my problem, as it often happens, was larger than fretting over the personal side of our finances. We were equally, or perhaps more so, upset by contrasting ourselves to our better-off friends and neighbors. It doesn’t make logical sense why we should concern ourselves with the financial situations of those around us. After all, they’re not paying our bills and we’re not paying theirs. Life is not a zero-sum game, with one person’s gain having to be another person’s loss. So we have no real reason not to be glad for another’s success. Right? If only it worked that way. In fact, it does matter to us. And the more difficulties we are having, the more the success of others, frankly, aggravates us.
In our competitive, comparison-minded culture, relative success is what matters. So another person’s gain really can feel like our loss. Economists refer to “positional goods,” the things we buy that are meant to set us a notch higher than others who don’t have them; and psychologists ponder “status anxiety,” our worry that we are not keeping up with others. In measuring where we stand, relativity is everything.
Professors at Harvard and the University of Miami conducted a survey about income. They asked over 250 people whether they would prefer to earn $50,000 per year while those around them earned $25,000, or to earn $100,000 while those around them earned $200,000. More than half chose the first scenario, giving up having twice as much total money in order to have relatively more than others.
A more nuanced experiment showed even more strongly how important relative wealth is to us. Researchers in Britain set up a computer gambling game in which each player got 100 units of currency. The subjects played to increase their wealth, and as they played they could also see how well the other players were doing. Then a new level of the game was introduced: First some random players were given a 500 unit bonus, and then all players were given the ability to pay some of their own currency in order to “burn” other players and reduce the other players’ wealth. In what came as a surprise to the researchers, the game became all about burning. The players who hadn’t gotten the bonus immediately struck out against the newly rich. Although it hurt their own wealth, two-thirds of the players spent their own currency to bring the wealthier players down.
Another bit of Petri dish proof that we care all too much about how much money our peers have comes from a recent experiment conducted at Princeton. A series of two players were openly explained the terms of a game that would be played only once: One player was given ten dollars and had to make an offer of some amount of that money to the other player. If the other player accepted the offer, both players would get to keep their money. But if the other player refused the offer, then neither would get to keep any money. Rational behavior says that Player B would accept any offer, since doing so meant personal gain, while refusal of any amount meant getting nothing. But that’s not what usually happened. When Player A’s offer was seen as unfair (a piddling dollar, for instance), it was usually refused by Player B, leaving both players with zero. As one of the study’s authors wrote, “Player B often gives up a smaller sum so Player A doesn’t get a larger sum.”
The awareness and concern over what other people have is an issue for us when we notice we have less, and also when we have more. When I lived in the Middle East I learned about the belief in the “evil eye.” Everywhere you go in some regions, you are stared down by blue eyes, mostly flattened disks of colored glass. One hangs at the entrance to every home, from the rearview mirrors of taxis, and near a business’ cash register. Cafe owners cement them into the sidewalks in front of their cafes, factory owners paint them on the sides of their factories. Small eyes are wired into the designs of jewelry, sewn on to the fringe of hand towels, glued to the tips of toothpicks. Recently they came up with a new way to get the eyes into their lives: melting them into the sides of tea glasses. What, visitors always ask, is with the eyes everywhere?
They are not the evil eye itself, they are warding off the evil eye. The evil eye is, essentially, envy. These people believe that if you enjoy good fortune, you’d better look out because others will envy you and you will attract negative energy. You’ll be struck down. The thinking is similar to that of ancient Greece, when mortals were cautious about having too much fun or achieving too much success because the gods could get envious and bring them down. That is why modern-day business owners are especially careful to engage the talismanic services of the blue eyes. They want to do well, they certainly seek good fortune, but they don’t want to appear to be doing well. The eyes help with that predicament.
At first I laughed this off as silly superstition. Now, however, having been through tough times and the emotional and social havoc they wreak, I am a believer in the evil eye. I don’t know if blue charms help prevent it, but the evil eye itself—the destructive force of envy—seems very real. Maybe seeing the blue eyes everywhere helps people keep their own envy in check because they are constantly being reminded of it, that it is wrong and that they don’t want it in their lives. As for myself I don’t know if living among the eyes when we were under hardship would have helped me keep perspective, but, disconcertingly, what I saw happening during that time is this: When things were rolling along great for friends, I got glum. I didn’t exactly wish them ill, but I didn’t genuinely celebrate for them, either. And believing that life’s cycle of ups and downs would spin around to everyone eventually did make me, very privately, almost shamefully, feel better.
Tina decided to launch a new career as an interior designer. My mom has a really good decorator, she explained, and I’ve always been interested in it.
She started taking classes at the same time my husband entered business school. The two of them commiserated about having homework; John and I commiserated about having to do the cooking while our spouses studied.
But on our side of the wall, our talk was not about how similar we were to our neighbors but about how aggravatingly different. When my husband was accepted to business school we nearly cried out of relief and happiness. We had decided that if he didn’t get in, he would have to go back to his country and work there again for a while. Going back to school meant our taking on six figures of student loans and braving two more years on a single income, but it also meant we could stay together, and it meant—or we had to believe it meant—nearly being guaranteed a well-paying job after two years.
Tina, on the other hand, had voluntarily given up a well-paying job and was going back to school on a whim because she happened to be interested in it. To fill her idle time, apparently. To amuse herself.
Or so we figured. After a few months of classes, something shocking happened.
Okay, I was not deliberately eavesdropping, but our building has very thin walls. Really, everybody knows this. You don’t have a conversation in the hallway or while waiting for the elevator if you don’t want the neighbors in on it. Usually this is a drawback.
Yet Tina had, for some very odd reason, come up to her apartment talking on her cell phone, and rather than entering her apartment, she conversed in the hallway, right outside our doors.
And here’s what I—inadvertently!—discovered: Things were not as they had seemed. As I heard what she told her friend, I was not only fascinated but guiltily thrilled.
We’re paying $115 for cable. Say, $90 for our cell phones. Car insurance is, like, $120 a month. Electricity, a hundred bucks, about . . .
She gave the sympathetic listener (not meant to be me, mind you) a detailed inventory of their monthly bills and announced a grand total with alarm in her voice.
This kind of goody doesn’t land at your doorstep every day—or, normally, ever. I quickly and shamelessly compared their tab to our own.
And that’s before, you know, just living, she said with despair. She didn’t know how they were making it, she reported.
The fact was, they weren’t making it.
The worst part about comparisons is that we often make them based on misinformation. We try to keep up with the Joneses, then it turns out, as it did in our case, that the Joneses as we know them don’t even exist. Even when someone does in fact have the money it looks like they have, which is often not the case, the funds do not add up to contentment. Among American households surveyed that earn more than $100,000 per year, 27 percent said that they did not have enough money to buy the things they “really need.” That gives new meaning to the concept of personal finance. Our financial situations and what they mean to our personal lives really do depend on our individual circumstances, surroundings, and mindset. We cannot, even if we wanted to, step into somebody else’s life and experience what appears to be so good about it. Whatever we thought we would enjoy of theirs—if we only had what they have—wouldn’t be the magic bullet we envision.
We perplex ourselves over scenarios that are not even true. My husband and I had constructed the dossier of our next-door neighbors out of circumstantial evidence and what turned out to be misleading appearances. In the absence of hard information and honest explanations, we cobble together our own image of the lives of the people we know and to whom we compare ourselves. Even though we know, intellectually, that everyone has his or her own problems, truly believing that the couple next door, our co-worker, or better-off sibling doesn’t really have it better than we do is another matter. Nothing, in my experience, gives greater comfort at these times of envy than recalling that things are not as they seem.
The day I overheard Tina’s conversation, I couldn’t wait for my husband to come home so that I could reveal the juicy gossip of The Real Situation Next Door. We had gone wrong somewhere in our analysis. Tina was apparently not a dot-com millionaire after all, not a lady of leisure. And, mortgage or no mortgage, they did have money worries like the rest of us. We had heard them complain briefly about various expenses before, but we hadn’t taken them seriously. After all, the more money someone has, the more they seem to feel obligated to complain publicly about high costs. (I had seen this in my Park Avenue boyfriend. When we opened the menu at an expensive restaurant, he would announce, Twenty-eight dollars for pasta—who are they kidding?!)
On the surface it was gossip, but on a deeper level, learning of our neighbors’ troubles was significant to us because we had come to feel so achingly alone in our bleak financial world. Just as we had read into their having a fully funded, joyful life together, now we could project that just as we sometimes lost sleep over money, so did they. We no longer felt singled out for suffering financial stress at the beginning of a marriage. We had some proof that a couple just like us could be in a somewhat similar situation, even though it didn’t look like it from the outside.
However, rather than commiserating—how could we, given that we weren’t supposed to know their problems anyway—I gleefully recounted the entire scene to several friends: You know our next-door neighbors without the mortgage? Listen to this . . .
Some information and honesty go a long way toward curing the comparisons that ail us. If we would only talk to one another about money and status, about our desires and discontent. If only it were okay to reveal what really goes on in our financial lives, not just factually but emotionally, how much better off we would be. Truth is healing. Like having daylight return after a night spent worrying in the darkness, constructive confessions can banish our loneliness and soothe our financial fretting. How much damage we do ourselves by hiding our money misgivings, and how unnecessary this collective burden is. Our financial and emotional welfare depend not on earning more or owing less but on opening up and coming to understand the reality of those around us. The Joneses lose their power over us when we get to know them and understand what their own lives are really like, behind what is usually a tightly closed door.
How much better could my husband and I have felt if we had known the details of what was going on with the money next door, let alone with a few other people? Much. I can say this because I went investigating—prying, even—to figure out a few Joneses and solve our compulsion to keep up. I started by knocking on our neighbors’ door and spending some time truly catching up with the Joneses. From there I went deeper into America, from suburbia to the nation’s leaders and across generations. And just to make absolutely sure that money doesn’t solve our problems, I got to know a billionaire and heard what most of us never know about that world.
You are about to learn the intimate details of what has been called America’s last secret.
Excerpted from Green With Envy , by Shira Boss . Copyright (c) 2006 by Shira J. Boss. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top