Being happy for others
‘O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the flesh it feeds on.’
(Iago to Othello, in Shakespeare’s Othello)
Some of the most miserable times in my life have been those when I have felt jealous or resentful. These can be difficult emotions for any of us – that promotion which should have been ours, the achievement someone else got credit for, the close group of friends we’re always on the outer of. Jealousy can be a sharp pang, quickly gone, or a simmering resentment which poisons our life for years. Either way, it certainly feels like we’re feeding on our own flesh, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it – it can distort our thinking, cause us to act unkindly, and impair our ability to feel happy and connected to others. Sometimes we’re justified in feeling resentful, such as when we are the victim of discrimination or abuse. Other times, however, our jealousy has more to do with our inability to be happy for the happiness of others. Everything which goes well with the other person, all their successes and joys, only serves to remind us of our own suffering and misery.
The Pali word ‘muditha’ is sometimes translated as sympathetic joy, the pleasure which comes from delighting in other people’s happiness. For some people this joy for others seems to come naturally, others really struggle with it. Most of us are somewhere in between – we manage it occasionally, particularly with those we love, but find it challenging at other times. Yet our inability to be happy for someone else’s happiness often has less to do with the other person – whether they ‘deserve’ it, how much other ‘luck’ they’ve had – and more to do with the state of our own inner life. If someone in your life has had good news, and you find your mouth drawn tight in resentment before you force it into a grimace and offer insincere congratulations, chances are you are feeling emotionally depleted, that your internal resources are running very low. It is a warning bell, which tolls to remind you to also take care of your own inner needs.
We often feel ashamed when we’re jealous, and certainly very vulnerable. Like with all the difficult emotions, it helps to be kind to ourselves for experiencing jealousy. The emotion itself is neutral, like a church bell which can call people to prayer but also warn them of impending disaster. What matters is how we respond to it, the actions we take, the lessons we learn from it. Meditation can give us the space to sit with these uncomfortable feelings, in a space which is non-judgemental and accepting. We can ask ourselves – what is it about my life at the moment, which makes it difficult for me to be happy for others?
We can also refrain from stirring up resentments against others. Iago’s statement to Othello is chilling not only because it is true, but because we, the audience, know he is cleverly feeding Othello’s jealousy against his wife, Desdemona, who is innocent. There is never a shortage of targets for our resentments, even if it is just the traffic moving faster in the other lane. Shock jocks and some other parts of the media thrive on feeding it in us. We can learn to be kind to ourselves when we notice our jealousies and resentments, even as we recognise that they are indeed mocking ‘the flesh (they) feed on.’
Weekly practice idea:
This week, practise feeling happy for someone who’s had some good news. The practice may seem artificial at first, but can help shift our responses over time.