The Green-Eyed Monster
What is jealousy?
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2012)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the emotion of jealousy and how we can try to combat it.
Preparation and materials
- None required.
- ‘O, beware jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster’, says Iago to Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name (Act 3, Scene 3).
Othello is the most famous literary work that focuses on jealousy and the damage that it can cause. The play is a study of how jealousy can be fuelled by circumstantial evidence and destroy lives.
In it, the hero, Othello, succumbs to jealousy when Iago convinces him that Desdemona, his wife, has been unfaithful. In the end, Othello murders his wife and then kills himself. It is interesting that Iago uses jealousy against Othello, yet jealousy is likely to be the source of Iago’s hatred in the first place.
- Why is jealousy so damaging, not only to the person who is jealous but also to the person who is at the root of that jealousy?
Small children are open about expressing jealousy. If they want something that another child has, they simply take ownership of it by guarding it and not letting anyone else use it, or by taking it away from everyone else. These emotions are obvious; they are easily seen on their faces and by their actions. It is later on in our lives that we tend to turn these emotions and feelings in on ourselves.
- So, where does jealousy come from?
Let’s think of a time when we were jealous of someone or something. Now let’s think about how being jealous made us feel.
We might have felt sad, angry or bitter. Jealousy can be a powerful feeling that affects us negatively even after a very long time.
- In Buddhism, one of the Four Noble Truths is ‘the truth of the origin of suffering’, which is desire. The word in Pali, the language in which the Buddhist scriptures are written, is tanhā, which specifically means ‘craving’. The Buddha taught that we follow our own selfish desires and crave what we know we cannot have, or crave something more when we get what we want, but it falls short of our expectations.
We can compare this to what we were thinking about just now and how that made us jealous. We wanted something and we didn’t get it, which led to us feeling cheated and wronged in some way. It is this craving, the Buddha said, that causes suffering. We suffer because we store up all the negative emotions surrounding us and by wanting what everyone else has.
- In the Buddhist Wheel of Life, there are different realms within which one can exist from moment to moment. One realm is the realm of hungry ghosts, which are wretched creatures with vast, empty stomachs. They have pinhole mouths and their necks are so thin that they cannot gulp down food, which they want to do to satisfy their appetites, so they remain hungry. Beings are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed, envy and jealousy.
It’s not a very nice thought, but it sums up the idea that being jealous hurts us, not the person or situation that we are jealous of.
- In the Ten Commandments, we are told that we are not to covet our neighbours’ belongings. To covet something is to want something that belongs to someone else.
The Ten Commandments cover the tenets of how to behave and how to be a good human being; that is, do not steal, do not lie, do not murder and so on. The idea of wanting what someone else has is seen to be as damaging as some of the other commandments.
In fact, in medieval Christianity, envy was seen as one of the seven deadly sins. Envy is similar to jealousy in that they both make us feel discontented in relation to someone’s qualities, position, abilities or belongings. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian scholar, described envy as ‘sorrow for another’s good’.
Time for reflection
Let’s cast our minds back to the events that we thought about earlier, a time when we were jealous of somebody or something.
What we felt is natural and happens to all human beings. Down the years, religions have viewed jealousy as something that needs to be explained because it is such a key part of human nature. Religions have tried to help us to find ways in which we can maybe feel a little less jealous or envious.
Let’s remind ourselves of what we do have, what we can do, what makes us special. After all, jealousy makes us want something that someone else has got, so first, let’s look at ourselves and appreciate our good points before wanting something else.
Don’t hold on to jealousy because it will do nothing but harm you.
Please help us to be happy with who we are and all that we have.
Please help us to look for the good in others and to be happy for them.
Please help us to control the feeling of jealousy.
May we not become bitter or spoil our friendships by allowing our feelings to get the better of us.