When I was seven years old my brother and I spent occasional weekends at our paternal grandmother’s house. We loved visiting because she baked cookies and pies for us and let us eat as much as we wanted.
She also taught us to play poker for quarters. Our mother was poor, so gambling was probably even more thrilling for me at seven years old than it is for an adult; a pile of won quarters felt like a huge lottery win. We got to keep our money and spend it on candy and small toys.
I can still remember the feeling of frustration when the stakes were high and I held a bad hand of cards. Our grandmother always tried to let us win when we played poker but sometimes the cards worked against us.
Our mother didn’t approve of our gambling but she looked the other way because we loved the game.
One day I came home from school crying because Aaron, a kid from a wealthy family, had picked on me, making fun of my homemade clothes.
I was jealous because I believed that Aaron had everything and I had nothing—the fact that he’d rubbed my nose in it only made things worse. His parents were married and mine were divorced. He was rich and I was poor. He had fancy clothes and a mongoose bike. I wore home -sewn clothes from whatever fabric my mother could scrounge and had never had a bike.
My mother soothed me and then talked to me about jealousy. She said, “Ronda, it’s okay to feel jealous. We can’t control our feelings. Everyone has them. But jealousy assumes that we know everything there is to know about the person we are jealous of.
“You don’t know what it’s like in Aaron’s house behind closed doors. Maybe everything is wonderful, as you now believe, but maybe his parents fight all the time or maybe he is abused.
“When you play poker with grandma, you might feel upset or jealous when you think she has a better hand than you do, but the reality is that you can’t see her cards. The only information you have is what she shows you, or what she lets you believe.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m jealous of grandma’s hand, but I only want the good cards in her hand, not the bad ones. You can’t say, ‘I’m jealous of grandma’s hand’ while the game is still in play because you can’t see her cards and you don’t know how the night will end.”
Today, when I feel jealous, I remember that conversation and what my mother taught me. Jealousy is irrational because it assumes things that aren’t true.
Jealously erroneously assumes that we have absolute knowledge of another’s life experience and can therefore measure their life against ours and determine that they are unfairly better off than we are. As an example, we might be jealous because someone else has more income than we have. But it may be that they work so many hours to make money that they are neglecting their family and headed toward an early grave because of stress.
Jealousy also falsely assumes that a moment in time represents the totality of what happens in our lives. Everyone struggles. Everyone experiences ups and downs. We might be jealous of someone who appears to have a perfect life today, only to see them lose everything tomorrow.
Comparing ourselves to other people usually leads to unnecessary misery and it rarely motivates us to better our own lives.
We have no choice but to work with the hand we are dealt and make the best of it. Instead of looking at someone else and thinking, “S/he is so much farther ahead than I am,” we can feel gratitude for the good things in our lives and choose to maximize our opportunities for happiness whenever they present themselves. We can show ourselves compassion by acknowledging that life is sometimes difficult but that we are doing the best we can, with what we have, every step of the way.