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But the spirit of modern society is one of intense equality, which is a
torture in terms of envy, for when egalitarian ambitions circulate in
societies that tell themselves that anyone can do anything, the
experience of envy goes into over-drive. We don’t envy everyone, we do
so only when we think their advantages are within our reach. So when
almost everything feels like it could be ours (but a lot never can be),
the opportunities for envy grow dangerously large.
We also need to remind ourselves of statistical realities, because
exposure to the media encourages us to forget them constantly. While the
supplements are continuously filled with success stories, success
itself will always remain highly anomalous, achieved by no more than a
few thousand out of many millions – a detail that the media carefully
(and sadistically) keeps carefully out of our imaginations. In contrast
to what it suggests, most businesses in fact fail, most films don’t get
made, most careers are not stellar, most people’s faces and bodies are
less than perfectly beautiful and almost everyone is sad and worried a
lot of the time. Mediocrity is the human norm. We shouldn’t lament our
own condition just because it doesn’t measure up against deeply
unrealistic benchmarks, or hate ourselves solely for our inability to
defy some breathtaking odds.
Unfortunately, we are extremely bad students of envy. We start to envy
certain individuals in their entirety, when in fact, if we took a moment
to analyse their lives calmly, we would realise that it was only a
small part of what they had done that really resonates with, and should
guide, our own next steps.
The haunting thought – why
them, why not me? – should therefore no longer invite simply
self-torture and panic. It should instead edge us towards admiration.
There are in truth real differences between oneself and the envied
person. One isn’t really their equal. It isn’t just laziness, bad luck
or some kind of persecutory force that explains our situation. We may
arrive at the sane realisation that, when viewed dispassionately,
certain accomplishments are truly beyond us. We can become appreciative
spectators, rather than disappointed rivals, of those who have
accomplished great things.
Despite good intentions, modern societies are profoundly unequal.