(Photo with caption “Here is Dante, guided by Virgil, in consoling the envious in purgatory. Painted by Flanders, 1835.”)
In the medieval novel “The Quest for the Holy Grail,” there is always a king who is troubled and depleted of life. He desperately needs someone to find the Holy Grail, a magic chalice which will restore life, happiness and joy to him and his kingdom. In the Chretien de Troyes version, Galahad is introduced as a poor young boy living in the forest who sees some shining knights on horses and decides he wants what they have, armor, horses, swords and a life of adventure. He kills a knight, takes his horse and armor and thus the story begins.
This is a story of envy and the desire to possess what another seems to have. The theme of envy makes for great films as well. The 1984 film “Amadeus” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and was about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the envious court composer Antonio Salieri, who eventually referred to himself as “the patron saint of mediocrity.” Such was the envy Salieri had for Mozart’s talent that he plotted his death.
Envy is an inevitable part of the life of anyone who possesses great talent. One of the most shocking things I have learned as a sport psychologist working with world-class athletes are the stories of envy these athletes encounter as they rise to the top. The public harbors a fantasy that the life of a superstar is filled with applause, accolades, money, admiration and love. But there is a dark side to the experience of fame that is every bit as dangerous as the death threats Mozart faced. Those who drink from “the great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame” will encounter envy at the highest level.
One patient told the story of when she was 11 years old. She was already a prodigious talent and she had just dominated a soccer match by scoring seven goals in one game. As she walked off the field in triumph, she was greeted by a parent for the opponent’s team who came up to her and kicked her in the stomach. This player later grew into the No. 3 in the world. Welcome to the world of envy, loathing and jealousy.
Another tale was told to me by a coach who began to dominate his sport of baseball by the time he was 30. At that time, he was an assistant coach on a nationally ranked baseball team and after they won the national title, the head coach, who was older and wiser, walked with him to the parking lot, put his arm around him and cryptically remarked: “Get ready to go home to no friends.” The young coach could not imagine what the head coach was referring to, but after his car was keyed a few times he came to understand the nature of envy firsthand.
Another unhappy tale is from an ex-NBA player I worked with who was a standout in his rookie year only to be sabotaged and eventually thrown off the team, thanks to the fear and envy of the team’s superstar, who instructed the head coach to get rid of this young player or else.
And envy is not only limited to sports. A common cause of learning disability in gifted children is due to the envy a parent, peer or sibling unconsciously feels when they begin to see that the girl or boy is smarter than they are. When the gifted child begins to sense that they are about to lose love because they are gifted, the child starts to slow down, work less and dumb it down rather than lose the relationship. A gifted child dreads being called an egghead or uncool and will intentionally work less hard to remain within their peer group.
The first psychoanalyst to write about envy was Melanie Klein, an Austrian/British author and child psychiatrist who developed a theory which described the aggressive and envious nature the young child had towards the mother’s breast, the object which contained the thing which the infant needed but had little control over. Her theory allowed researchers to study envy as the most basic and perhaps the most dangerous human trait. Contrary to the adult fantasy of the bliss of childhood, she felt that children suffered more acutely than adults and that most adult suffering has its roots in the childhood experience of anger, frustration, hunger, greed and envy.
When you work with gifted athletes, talented coaches or high IQ students who face painful envy and unwarranted attacks, one naturally commiserates and empathizes with them. As the saying goes “It’s lonely at the top.” The athlete or student assumes that there must be something wrong with them to have been ostracized this way. They have been contaminated by the envy of others. I help them understand that their pain and loneliness come from being better than others and not worse. Eventually this allows for a renewed ownership of their abilities, independence, and power.
To be envied, scapegoated and shunned by peers is exceedingly painful and confusing. But what is worse is the shutting down of talent to hide your power, your gifts and your potential. Yes, we need the love of others, but we also need to fulfill our own destiny.
Chretien de Troyes used the Holy Grail as the symbol of the ultimate elixir and why trophies are often symbolized as chalices or cups. They are meant to symbolize nourishment for the victor and a safeguard against the envy and jealousy of their peers. So, if you feel you have been hurt by the envy of others, make a list of your achievements, display your trophies and medals and ask yourself the question: “Am I able to truly recognize the joy of all this and of my own greatness?”