Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

contemplating envy

and the complexities of being appreciated

i read a message from a friend, on a large discord server we shared, linking a project that another friend made and praising it as the coolest thing ever. that other friend—let’s call him evan, because that’s not his name. evan has a full-time job as a software engineer, and makes programming projects as a hobby. one of these projects became popular enough that a completely unrelated friend heard of it and sent a message about it. that message made me feel envy.

what is envy? i think of envy as a kind of pain, for pain is anything that makes you want to feel less of it. the pain was a feeling of not being good enough. good enough for what? good enough to have what evan had, maybe; good enough to have evan’s life.

because i want to be evan. i want a life where i can tweet what i want and get thousands of followers. where, even if i have a day job at this silly b2b saas startup, i work on projects that get thousands of stars on github, projects that people actually use. i want the feeling of impact. when i do the math and think about how my work has influenced, indirectly, through little epsilons, hundreds of thousands of people, surely that adds up to something, but i don’t know, i believe it, i think it’s true, but it doesn’t make me feel good. give me that github repo. i want to be a star.

life gives the things you want to people who don’t want them.

but even if i get that, what’ll it give me? the numbers go up and i ride on a high for a few seconds or days, then i’ll be itching for something else. if i wanted more people to star my github repos, i could buy a thousand fake accounts. i could quit my job and work on personal coding projects full-time, i could make things that i think would be popular rather than things i would enjoy working on.

i make things that people like, sure. i write a blog, this one, the one you’re reading, that has maybe a dozen views per post. i wrote a math handout the other day, posted it on my website; it took more than twenty hours to write. less than twenty people have downloaded it. i could publicize my work better, post it on aops like i used to, but that feels self-defeating, too goal-oriented; if my work was truly great people would share it without me having to push them, right?

maybe that’s not true. publicity isn’t intrinsically bad, it’s not evil, not in a world where everyone’s yeling into the void to get their things in front of more eyeballs, more users, more people, more button clicks. and that’s what i want. give me that number going up. give me the high of people on the internet approving what i’ve made; give me the high of people approving me.

why do i feel this envy? i know what the envy means now, but i want to understand how it came up. why do i have this want, anyway?

buddhism feels like the kind of thing that would have answers to this, so i did some reading. the buddha defeated desire by touching dirt—literally touch grass. the point was that envy, like all desires, was a sensation. the buddhist stance is that the brain is a sensory organ, and desires are a sensation, and like all sensations, are produced by external stimuli.

the message i read made me feel envy in the same way that touching dirt would make me feel a grainy texture. if i felt a grainy texture after letting go of the dirt, it’s not because i’m still touching dirt, but because i am clinging to the sensation of something grainy. in the same way, if i felt envy after reading the message, it’s not because it’s still making me envious, it’s because i’m clinging to the sensation of envy. the buddha defeats desire by acknowledging it as a sensation, then letting it go. at least, that’s how i understand it.

it makes sense, but it doesn’t feel reductive enough. it doesn’t explain why that message made me feel envy in the first place. is it about something i don’t have? if evan instead was praised for having millions of dollars, i wouldn’t feel envy. maybe because i don’t want millions of dollars. if evan was praised for posting a math handout on his website about some obscure math topic… then i think i’d feel envy. now that i think about it, it’s not about evan having something i don’t have. it’s about my friend praising evan in the first place. it’s because i wish my friend praised me too.

it goes back to desire to be loved and appreciated, as it always does. the third rung of maslow’s, because why would you reach for self-esteem or self-actualization if you don’t feel appreciated? i used to believe in a god that loved and appreciated me no matter what, but i don’t believe that any more.

i’ve always found it hard to accept other people’s appreciation. too often the thanks doesn’t make me feel anything. it’s not that people don’t appreciate me, i think; but that it’s hard to accept it when it comes. i save all the nice letters that people write me and take screenshots of all the nice things that people say about what i’ve done, and i have it in a folder in my laptop, and i look at it from time to time when i feel unloved, and sometimes it helps but it mostly doesn’t.

my therapist told me that maybe i should get a boyfriend. someone sent me an article that mentioned how a lot of successful people were in romantic relationships. that seems kinda, hm. allonormative, maybe? i don’t know whether i’m aromantic, but the thought of being in a relationship feels scary.

i talked about all this with a friend while i was in boston for mystery hunt, and they told me that perhaps it’s the manner the appreciation is expressed. people can give you things, or they can spend time with you, and these too are ways of expressing appreciation. i said that none of these made me feel appreciated either. they asked whether there was anything that made me feel appreciated, and i said it was hard to come up with anything, when really i didn’t even appreciate myself.

“it sounds like you should resolve that,” they said.