Communicating can be a humbling experience. The potential for being misunderstood is great and the fear of such misunderstanding can be the cause of much anxiety. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to fully explain what we mean, and sometimes we simply don’t know how to say what we mean. The people we are communicating with have more or less capacity to understand us and the confusion levels increase as you add more people to the equation. Making this even more complicated is the fact that some words don’t mean what we think they mean.
The word jealousy is now used almost exclusively as a synonym for envy. Your friend has a new phone or has tickets to Hamilton on Broadway or sends you a picture of her tanned legs stretching out to white sand and blue-green ocean and you text back, “Jealous!” It would probably sound odd or maybe even pretentious to text back, “Envious!” Except, that is what you are. You are envious, not jealous.
The word jealous actually means (or used to mean?) to desire to keep the thing you have from other people. How about some context? Let’s compare God in the Old Testament to Rick Springfield from his 1981 album Working Class Dog.
In the Bible, God is often referred to as a jealous God. The idea is that the Israelites are God’s people. God doesn’t want to share the Israelites with any other gods. In a similar way, you might jealously guard your influence and reputation, your position at work, land, relationships, etc. Jealousy has a complex set of implications, which can be healthy or unhealthy. The “consuming fire” can be turned outward in affection and care or inward in self-centered possessiveness. Jealous isn’t a simple word.
Rick Springfield, on the other hand, was envious of his good friend Jessie. It would sound more poetic if we could say he was jealous of Jessie, but we don’t always get what we want (sorry to complicate things with a Stones reference). Rick may be content with finding “a woman like that,” but it is difficult to ignore his constant repetition of “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” He wants what someone else has. That’s envy.
Side note: It isn’t clear from the song or video if Jessie is a jealous boyfriend. For the purposes of this blog post, that point is probably moot.
Here’s the turn back to something like a point that isn’t moot, thanks for staying with me.
When words like envy and jealousy are conflated, we lose the capacity to communicate clearly and specifically. I would like to suggest that all of us can work harder and think more deeply about how and what we communicate. Having been humbled enough over the years by my own miscommunication, I would also suggest that we offer significant latitude to others as they try and try again to work out what they mean. Words aren’t as simple as they seem.
Certainly, the distinction between holding tightly to the thing we have and grasping after the thing someone else has is significant, and knowing the difference is potentially critical to our development as persons. It is also important to understand the nuances of the words we use because they reveal the even more nuanced desires and motivations in ourselves and others. Recognizing these nuances can, like a small flashlight, illuminate a bit of the path forward and maybe reduce the number of times we stumble in the darkness of what we call communication. Ain’t that the way love’s supposed to be?