September 10, 2015 by Julia
I am leaving this weekend for a yearly event that one of my younger brother organizes with friends – which means I get to do a bunch of fun things without kids: relax, drink, sit on a boat in the sun, have uninterrupted conversation, etc. I am lucky that I get to do this, and I carry a huge amount of guilt that I get to do this. I am a mother with a supportive husband and local family to help watch the kids, a person with enough money to spend it on a reasonable amount of fun things, a person who enjoys this sort of thing and has the opportunity to just show up without putting in any work.
I have an intense fear of being or acting spoiled; I also want everyone around me to have everything that I have and to be happy – happier than me, if it comes down to it.
I hope that isn’t me deluding myself into sainthood. I do care about the people around me very, very much, though, and the idea that my happiness could hurt someone is painful enough to bring me to tears. Seriously, it’s one of the things that bothers me so much I can’t stand it. I want to include everyone, share it all. If I could invite all of the beleaguered mothers of the world to a few days of relaxed debauchery at a lake house, and then somehow change all of their lives so that it were possible for them to take the weekend off, I would. Of course not everyone would know each other and it would still be a disaster of some kind and it’s totally impossible, but it bothers me that there will always be someone who wishes they could go to something like this and can’t. And I can.
Everyone struggles. To envy someone is to believe that they don’t have their own pain or challenges. But wealth, beauty, talent, even love doesn’t mean that someone has it easy. To judge someone with a side of envy is actually a way of copping out. “Well, she’s so pretty, of course she could get any man she wants. No wonder she doesn’t have a personality.” “He complains about his job, but they have a vacation home and send their kids to the best private school, so I don’t really want to hear about how hard it is to work fourteen hours a day.” “I wish I could be as selfish as she is, just following her dream.” “They always look so in love. And fit! I wish I were in an easy, picture-perfect marriage like that.”
I am guilty of being harsher toward people who appear to be blessed. But I can tell you, after having been on both sides of that coin, that it’s just a lie. Everyone needs compassion, even the beautiful, successful ones. It’s easier to believe that they have made it through, or they have it so much easier, and if only we had gotten lucky in that same way (or could find the motivation to work toward our loftiest goals), we’d be better off, too. But sometimes the things we think we most crave are empty. We’d rather worship those false idols from afar than get close enough to see the chipped gold paint and cheap rhinestones. Envy at least keeps the hope alive that being thin, or popular, or rich will be the answer. Judgement reassures us that although they might have something desirable to us, we are still superior because our standards don’t allow us to “sell out” or otherwise make morally inferior choices to get there.
There is no one answer, though, when it comes to happiness. We might earn the money, but lose the time with our family. We might attain the body we’ve dreamed of, but alienate our friends with our constant talk of our diets and workout, while prioritizing our fitness over our social life one too many times. We could move to the country for a summer in order to write The Great American Novel, only to realize that the quiet solitude we longed for leaves us too lonely and empty of creative fuel. And there is the mother’s classic concern, which I believe is valid, of: what about my kids? Where do my kids end up if I follow that dream? Should I turn it into a half-dream, or totally put it off until the kids are out of the house?
And then the children ask for another snack and we are brought back down to earth, to messes and sacrifice and the practice of patience. Spontaneous humor, wonder and the physical comfort of a small, soft body curled up with your own.
I do know we all need contrast in our lives; it’s okay to aim for both the selfless, and the selfish. And I may have a beautiful family and a comfortable life, but I still need your compassion at times. I will try to extend it to you as well, even if you post gorgeous photos of yourself in a bikini on Facebook, or even if your novel just won the Pulitzer Prize. And I will be happy for you.