Brothers and Sisters
I grew up in a small town with two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother. My sister went to UGA, worked in Atlanta for a while, moved back to our small town when she started her family and is now a full-time mom with a beautiful family. My younger brother just finished a prestigious medical residency and is about to join the office of a Big Deal Surgeon.
I left our small town because I wanted to be an artist. I moved to New York and thought that everything would come together for me, and I was so grateful to be in the Big City. Ten years after finishing art school, it hasn’t happened. I have student debt, credit card debt, a sick dog and a measly living from teaching art as an adjunct at five—count ’em—five schools around the city.
Sometimes my dog and I walk around the city early in the morning, and I can’t imagine having done anything else, lived any other way. But almost every day, I think about the lives my siblings have made for themselves and feel sick to my stomach with jealousy (and disappointment in myself). Sometimes I even avoid their calls, because I can’t stand to hear about the cute things my nieces have done or my brother’s new apartment and his new job. I hate feeling this way. What can I do? I love my siblings, but I’m so jealous, I sometimes hate them.
My heart is broken into a million little pieces for you. Almost too broken to be able to respond. You’re living a wonderful and valid and important life. Let me say that again: Your life is important and valid and valuable.
Let’s look at your life. You’re living in a vibrant, diverse place where you can find other people who love and value the same things you do. You made a move that many (most) people would be too scared to make. Your life is centered on creative work that’s important to you. You have friends. You have a dog, and you’re living a life that wouldn’t be possible—that doesn’t exist—in your hometown.
The fact that you haven’t figured everything out yet isn’t failure. Life is a process, and you’re still figuring out how your life will work. Sometimes you try something to see if it works out, then evaluate and adjust. Sometimes things that once worked for you no longer do. Sometimes your needs change, so you change parts of your life. You don’t get your life to a certain set point and then put it on cruise control. So the fact that your life isn’t perfect now doesn’t mean it will always be imperfect. It just means that your life is still in progress.
You named what you’re feeling “jealousy,” but I don’t think that’s accurate. There’s a really strong cultural narrative that says spouse + kids + house + “important” job = happiness. And that does bring true happiness to some people. But it’s not even close to a universal formula. A lot of people would be happier living another way, but there’s not a lot of room in the cultural narrative for those choices, and those lives aren’t celebrated in the same way.
All that to say, I don’t think you envy what your siblings have. I think what you want is for the great aspects of your life to be recognized and celebrated. And for the validity of your life to be recognized. Because what you’re living right now is your life. And as I said before, it’s wonderful, and it’s still unfolding. But some people probably act as though what you’re doing now is a kind of temporary screwing around that will last for a few years until you get married, have kids and start doing work that they can understand. And that’s insulting. And hurtful.
Would you be happy if you were married and living in a small town with kids? Or working for a surgeon? My guess is no. If you were living that life, you’d be writing me a different kind of letter—one in which you talked about dreams deferred, not being true to yourself, having unhappiness deep within, wishing something were different and feeling trapped.
So are you faced with two unattractive options? The first option is to live a life that’s true to what you want but marred by jealousy, and the second option is to live a life like that of your siblings, marred instead by a strong, persistent undercurrent of unhappiness? Fortunately, I don’t think so.
I think the third and happiest option is to keep building a life you will love. Keep evaluating and changing the things you don’t like. Be an art teacher until you’re not happy doing that. Live in New York until you think you’d be happier somewhere else. If you’re unhappy but not sure what would be better, try making one change and see how it goes. Try something different for a year or three and see where you are. Try not to let yourself get pulled into the comparison trap, and do remember that you’re building a life that is true to what you want. If you do start to feel low sometimes, though, give yourself permission not to answer your phone. Spend time with friends whose choices and lives are more in line with yours. Sometimes you need that support and confirmation; don’t beat yourself up for it. Doing surgery and having kids are nice, but there are other great things, too.
Ohgodohgodohgod. I have a professional job that I’m happy with, and I’m afraid I may have messed it up. I went out for happy hour with a bunch of colleagues last week (can you see where this is going?), drank too much, got really loud and probably kind of obnoxious. The details are too embarrassing to recount, but I know I looked ridiculous, and now I’m embarrassed going in to work every day. Should I apologize to the people I was with? Pretend it didn’t happen?
In a few years, you will see a younger, newer employee do the same thing. You will be tempted to take advantage of the fifth law of thermodynamics: If the heat’s on someone else, it’s not on you. Resist that temptation and treat her with empathy. Do not join in any office gossip about her. In fact, speak up in her defense. Tell your coworkers that everybody gets carried away sometimes. Because, as you now know, talented, professional people sometimes act unprofessionally.
For more immediate damage control, be the consummate professional around the office. Be friendly, but don’t go overboard. And, more important, be an outstanding employee. That’s your best protection against most gossip. If you have a close, trusted work friend, you could ask him or her how bad it really was. I don’t suggest bringing it up with many people, though, and certainly not in a group. If anyone else brings that night up, you can do one of two things. You can just not comment on it, or you can say two sentences about it. Those sentences are, “I drank more than usual that night. I’m not inclined to do that again.” The rumor mill pumps furiously and almost ceaselessly. The only way to stop it is to withhold fuel. The less said about it, the better.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. You drank too much and acted inappropriately, but it doesn’t sound like you committed any crimes. This kind of thing happens. (Now, if you’re smart and want to keep your job, it only happens once.) Go to work, use this as an incentive to be an even better employee and know that this will fade from people’s memories.
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