By Mariele Ventrice
There is a small ethnic group living in southwest China who refer to themselves as the Na. The Na don’t have a word for “jealousy.” According to some sociologists and anthropologists, they don’t even understand the concept.
The Na are fascinating people in many ways. Their social framework is primarily matriarchal, partners often do not live in the same household, and men and women may have as many partners as they wish in their lifetime without fearing social stigma.
I often think of the Na people and try to imagine a world in which jealousy doesn’t exist. It’s near impossible for me. Sometimes, I am consumed by envy.
I can proclaim with certainty that jealousy is a destructive and negative force. It yields an emotional state resembling hysteria and operates with a mind of its own, tearing through me in sharp waves, causing panic and pain.
Although romantic/sexual jealousy is perhaps the most potent manifestation, it doesn’t stop there. There is always someone who is more beautiful, more educated, more adventurous, more fun, more stable, fitter and richer. I struggle to understand why this causes me so much agony, when it is true for virtually everyone.
Worst of all, I feel inexplicably attached to jealousy, like it’s a part of myself of which I’m afraid to let go. Sometimes, I blame a consumerist society, in which we are taught to always search for something bigger and better—in which the goal is to attain rather than to be.
Other times I blame sexism, for when it is internalized, it creates the urge to seek approval from male “superiors.” When that approval is not obtained, jealousy runs rampant and reigns without restraint.
However, the emotion is certainly not exclusive to women, and it existed long before the advertising industry or fashion magazines. You only need to do a little reading to ascertain these truths. Othello comes to mind right away.
So how can I combat this omnipresent beast? How can anyone? It helps to remember that the Na do not have a word for jealousy. Perhaps it is a less intrinsic trait than we are inclined to think.
However, I believe the power to overcome jealousy lies ultimately within oneself. Regardless of the societal influences, the bottom line is that I feel unworthy, I am full of self-doubt, and, most significantly, I am afraid.
Last summer, after an unpleasant break-up, I made an appointment with my therapist. I remember sitting in her office, a small but cozy room, sobbing madly. Just when it seemed like I would pull myself together, a sudden surge of panic overcame me. I could feel my eyes involuntarily widening before I’d start to cry again. Finally, I said, “I just keep thinking about him sleeping with other girls and it makes me feel terrible!”
My therapist’s reply was not the sympathetic coddling I expected.
“Well of course it does,” she said. “If you want to feel really horrible and jealous, you should try to envision that. It’s a fail-proof method.”
Somehow, during that session, I came to realize for the first time that I don’t have to be chained to my jealousy. Although sometimes it’s extremely difficult, I don’t have to obsess about things that flood me with envy. It’s okay to let them be. To let myself be. I’ve tried it and nothing bad has happened.
I’ve come to believe that my attachment to jealousy stems from fear that if I stop caring so much I will lose the people I love. In reality, feeling jealous does not make me or anyone else “care” more. In fact, the opposite is true. Jealousy gets in the way of our relationships and our ability to achieve our dreams. It is stagnating and obstructive.
It feels wonderful and liberating to let jealousy and fear drift away like the fleeting emotions that they are. If you can remember that negativity does not define you, you can let it slip away. I’ll admit, I haven’t perfected this art. Unlike the Na people, jealousy is a part of the cultural construction that surrounds me.
But occasionally, I take deep breaths and feel perfectly fine. I allow myself to simply be.
Mariele Ventrice is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied writing, literature, and publishing. She’s an eclectic 20-something with an array of interests, which include traveling, running, community service, grocery shopping, loud music, cheap wine, poetry, and tea. She currently calls Somerville, MA home.