"Everytime a friend succeeds, something in me dies." (Gore Vidal). An honest, true-to-self statement no less. But I wonder what dies, specifically? Which part of him or us dies? Indulge me here as I split some hair. If I take the Christian trichotomy of the body, soul and spirit, and applying Vidal's quote, which domain dies first? The body? The soul? The spirit? And if the soul is the seat of our emotion, will and intellect, which one of them suffers direct fatality? And even if it is just the death of a small part in us, wouldn't the successes of more than one friend snowball or speed up my mortality?
Of course, we take that quote to be metaphorical or symbolic of our human nature but the truth is closer to home than we think. If we are honest about how we feel, not every success of our friends have the same effect on us. No doubt we can be genuinely happy for their success, but at the same time it is the same success that may take something from us. Worse still, it may be an outward celebration of an inward fermentation of disappointment, disillusionment, and despondency. More like an invidious form of self-blaming by others-comparing.
For this reason, not all successes (of our friends) are treated equally by us. If it is a matching success, then most of us welcome it. For example, when our friends get promoted to the same level as us with equal pay and responsibilities, we generally receive the news with a measure of joy. Another example is when they upgrade materially to match ours or get the same academic grades, we are likewise happy for them.
But then, if the success is unequal, the emotions get more complex. What darkens the two peas in the same socioeconomic pod when success favors another disproportionately is a stormy mix of personal pride, ego and envy. This is of course quite natural and Vidal was honest enough to admit it. I guess inconsequential successes matter less for him than consequential successes like the success of a disciple over his master or a student over her teacher or a competitor or an enemy or a lucky but lazy neighbor over another. It may be petty no doubt but it is no less true for most of us. And you know that familiar soul-gnawing feeling that comes and goes before you know it? Well, that may just be Vidal's decomposition process taking place within you.
Somehow, what for Vidal is a certain death is to some of us a certain feeling of envy, inadequacy, lamentation, soreness, forlorn-ness, emptiness, dullness, heartache, self-blaming and sadness. Pick your Vidal's hemlock.
You see, the scripture reminds us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. But the ugly truth is, it is easier to weep (with the more unfortunate) than to rejoice (with the more fortunate). The disguise that turns out to be a blessing for our friends is usually the envy in disguise for us as we quietly celebrate their successes.
In fact, even more morbidly, Vidal went on to say that "it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." Talk about human nature red in tooth and claw!
Earlier I mentioned that this is part of our human nature because this Vidal's symptom - being rather universal - is more prevalent in our modern times. We now live in a time when the inequality gap is the widest for the economically developed countries. And this widening gap is a bitter pill to swallow for the languishing majority. As the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting more populous, disgruntled and envious. And it is not really helping for the haves of society to flaunt their wealth so blatantly before the masses and such insensitivity is like kicking sand into the opened wound of the have-nots.
While most at poverty's ground zero are trying to make ends meet by grinding through an honest day’s work, the top tier of society (that exclusive 1%) seems to be mocking hard work with easy hot money, exorbitant rental income, outrageous CEO pay and bonuses, preferential treatments from the powers-that-be, generous tax incentives and unjustified tax exemptions, and profit margins that far exceed the imagination of many. No doubt some of them are performing admirable philanthropic acts, it is still always better to be at the giving end than the receiving end. Coupled with news of spoilt second generation squandering off their father's wealth and flaunting it all, it is no wonder that what is eating us up inside is doing so at a rate more rapacious than before.
So Vidal's truism is going to ruffle more than a few feathers when the income and capital inequality widen even further. The truth is, we live in an age of unsettling discontentment and there is a quiet desperation in us to crave for and desire the successes of our friends. Especially when their successes come with more luck than merit or hard work, the desperation in us seethes even deeper. And this is why most would rather be born lucky than rich or famous.
But notwithstanding the truth in Vidal's statement, I would like to turn it on its head here with this thought: if everytime a friend succeeds, something in us dies a little, maybe it is something that needs to die so that we may live more meaningfully. Maybe this is a death that is necessary to make way for a new birth or perspective. Maybe this death is the death of self and it is followed by a time of intimate reflection. This accords well with the Christian tradition of dying to self and living for a greater glory.
Alas, every such death will no doubt be fraught with pain and the same is unavoidable. But this pain grows us instead of diminishing us. It gradually opens our eyes to what is truly important instead of narrowing them to wallow on self-pity, envy and bitterness. And if such death is what it takes to make room for renewed living, then the success of friends should still be a cause for celebration. And it is the celebration of a twin victory, that is, the success of others and the death of self. Cheerz.