Dec/Jan 2013

Happiness Envy

Choire Sicha


Writers and most other people without real jobs spend most of their work time not actually creating things but either “making bad work for hire” or “burning with envy.” Our tabloid culture encourages this. Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Hoda Kotb and whichever German teen or war-on-terror combatant was most recently held captive in a basement have all received bazillion-dollar book advances, and that is so unfair! How could capitalism work that way, that some product that is worth a lot of money would then be purchased for a lot of money to make a corporation a lot more money?

Something writers do the least of is actual writing. This is fair, because writing sucks.

Other writers haunt writers’ days. And, of course, our selves haunt ourselves, as we worry obsessively over where our lives took some fatal turn or another: our choices, snubs, mistakes, failures, procrastinations. And then it turns back outward: Other people are demons who started with more than you have, unfairly conjure up more than you have (mostly due to their rich parents or connections, we imagine), and will die bloated and laughing atop a pile of more than you’ll ever have, so, oh God, why don’t you just quit right now and get a job at a Pret a Manger?

These dark specters that chase our every waking minute, tricking us into “doing nothing” and not writing: We are dealing with them all wrong, it turns out.

The latest Adam Phillips book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), addresses this quandary—or, as Phillips puts it, he is setting out to examine “how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” It’s unclear, of course, how Adam Phillips would know. Not content to just be a child psychologist, he is also a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and the author of a number of books, On Kindness—with Barbara Taylor—and On Balance (which addresses envy and excess) and Going Sane and more and more. He is far more productive than you are, is the point. These books make up a steady and usually charming, sometimes bizarre, waterfall of middle-of-the-night thoughts, literary analysis, and psychoanalysis.

In Missing Out, Phillips seeks to render the self-punishing rigors of envisioning alternate lives—denied lives, better lives, more outrageous lives—into a normal-ish study in badly managed life expectations. While our lives are a seesaw of frustration and fulfillment, the eventual satisfaction never quite measures up.

He also has an extended riff on “getting away with it”—a special moment of triumph for people in the arts when perhaps you merge your idealized and humdrum selves.

“When we are talking about getting away with something,” he notes, “we are talking about the dizzying possibility of not being punished for getting what we think we want (what Sartre called ‘the vertigo of freedom’; freedom, for this short man, was to do with heights).” And that pretty much sums up what kind of book this is. It’s a grab bag quite unlike the skylarking social theorizing that now rules the American pop-psychology scene: The Malcolm Gladwells and Jonah Lehrers like to reassure you that your own intuitions about your successful mastery of your life are usually spot-on, and simply require fuller elaboration in the matrix of a smarter, leaner, just-in-time info marketplace. Instead of studies and science (well, one hopes it’s science; it’s always best to check the sources now), Phillips prefers traipsing through literature—Aldous Huxley, Philip Larkin, Nikolay Gogol, Graham Greene, Shakespeare, and (and?) Freud. Mostly a white-people canon, but the lesser-read books. (There’s a lot, unfortunately, on King Lear and Othello. Probably I’m a rube, but I’ve never felt the archetypes of Shakespeare’s rich-people tragedies were at all useful for the illustration of either inner or contemporary life: the less comic or the higher the station of the characters, the more atypical of humanity it all is.) There’s also a healthy bit of pre-popcult shrink thinking, with, for example, developmental ruminations about the infant’s denial of the breast. This is, in other words, the opposite of self-help.

Because of its wild ranginess, its unwillingness to be American and tell me what to think, Missing Out brought me a strange and maybe obvious kind of comfort. When I was younger, I had a good friend who was something of a professional goader: He was always the one who would dare me to do things, while I was the cautious one who’d rather have regret than misadventure. The point of growing up was largely for me to learn to dare myself, to bridge the gap between the real life (laundry, bad affairs, daydreaming) and an idealized life, which everyone around me had a little bit of, if only I could find a way to steal it. A logical conclusion would be that envy is childish, but that’s not right. Envy informs you of what you’d like to take, so want away! Just make sure that you get to the taking part.

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