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Last summer I decided at the last minute to attend my 25th high school reunion. I was recently divorced and, thanks to Facebook, I had gotten back in touch with lots of old classmates. In my new unencumbered state, I figured I'd have plenty of time to really reconnect with everyone -- no little kids to chaperone, no husband to worry about excluding as my friends and I reminisced about old times. I arrived at the party in a great mood. In fact, I felt better than I had in months.
By the time I left I felt deflated. Yeah, I had fun seeing my old friends, and I'd even made some new ones. What was so bad about that? Well, one former classmate had started a business that was so successful he was able to retire at 35. Another had a job leading museum tours in foreign countries. One worked for a nonprofit and was saving the world. And another had just gotten married -- she stood giggling, handsome husband beaming at her side. Still another was surrounded by her kids -- beautiful, polite, gorgeously dressed kids. Bathed in the glow of success, my classmates inquired about my post-high school trajectory.
"I heard you'd decided to go to grad school! Are you teaching?" the world-saver asked.
"Um, no," I said sheepishly. "I work from home. And I take care of my kids. Well, they're pretty old now, actually, 14 and 8. I guess I could go back to work if I wanted to."
"Back to work!" the rich retiree echoed. "What was your career?"
"I never really had one," I replied. "I mean, not like yours."
"Is your husband here?" asked Mrs. Happily-Ever-After.
"No. We just got divorced," I said.
On the drive home from the reunion I tried to figure out why my good mood had crashed so hard. No one I'd talked to had been condescending or rubbed her success in my face. I liked these people and I wanted to be happy for them. Actually, I was happy for them. So why did I feel so bad?
It's not like I'm a competitive person. While I could certainly use more money, I don't fantasize about having a lavish lifestyle. My lack of stupendous career success doesn't bother me much, and my personal life is, after years of disappointment, finally on the upswing. Yet my former classmates seemed to embody something I wished I had, or that I felt was beyond my reach or even behind me forever. Now that my life was defined by negatives -- no husband, no babies requiring a lot of time and energy, no purposeful career -- I couldn't help but suddenly feel really, really jealous.
I hoped the feeling would pass in time but it continued to gnaw at me for weeks. I was angry at myself for being so petty -- I'm not that person! Why couldn't I just move on?
I called my friend Margaret for advice. She's accomplished, smart, and nice, all without being the slightest bit goody-goody. I figured if anyone could make me feel better, it would be her.
"Oh, I know that feeling well," she said at once. Like me, Margaret had put her career on the back burner in order to spend most of her time with her kids. Also like me, she'd felt pangs of dissatisfaction when reminded of other people's brilliant achievements. "Driving to school, I used to pass a church with an Annie Dillard quote posted outside that read, 'How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,'" Margaret said. "I guess they meant it as inspiration, but for me it felt like a reproach. If I was what I did every day, then I was a chauffeur, a wiper of noses, a fixer of supper. My mind and talents and education were wasted. I was a drudge."
I realized I'd felt the same way when I was trying to think of something to write on my name tag at the reunion, some clever caption that would make my life seem fulfilling and worthwhile. Too bad "Just Trying to Stay Above Water" doesn't sound as exciting as it sometimes feels, I told Margaret. "The thing is, Fernanda, if you really think about what you value in other people -- like kindness, loyalty, or a sense of humor -- they're not the kind of things you'd put on a name tag," she replied. "You know you're more than your job or the stuff you have."
I did know, and the reminder was comforting. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough to shake my gloom. It was time to call in a few pros.
The following week I told my reunion story to psychotherapist Julie Hanks, director of Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City. Had she had firsthand experience of my sorry situation? She laughed. "The great thing about being a therapist is that it has almost completely cured me of envy," Hanks said. "People's lives are not as beautiful as they seem -- or as wonderful as they claim. The inside scoop is very different, I promise you. No one exists without serious loss, disappointment, or burdens."
Another expert I spoke to, Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, a psychologist in Flagstaff, Arizona, pointed out that meeting someone at the top of her game -- especially at a class reunion, where everyone is presenting her best self -- guarantees you'll have a skewed impression. "You're only looking at the great outcome of somebody else's hard work, not the sacrifices they made in order to be successful," Hibbert explained. She recommended that I think harder about whether I really wanted everything my classmates had and, if so, whether I was willing to pay the price to get it. "If you ultimately decide their achievements aren't worth the trouble and sacrifice, that can be tremendously freeing," she said.
How right she was. On closer inspection I realized I didn't really want to inhabit my high school friends' lives. Take the nonprofit worker. Yes, I'd wanted to join the Peace Corps after college. But instead I'd moved to Paris with my boyfriend, whom I later married. That wasn't too shabby and I wouldn't trade those years -- pretty amazing years -- for anything.
But what about my friend with the exotic travel job? She'd told me how hard it was to leave her 2-year-old for weeks on end. I never could have done that. I wouldn't have chosen the rich businessman's career path for similar reasons -- he'd probably spent the past decade or so at the office in order to grow his company. Besides, he had seemed a little bored -- possibly even boring. He'd told me that he and his family could live anywhere in the world but when I pressed the issue ("What about Italy? Buenos Aires? I hear New Zealand is wonderful!"), he muttered that they were staying put in the nondescript suburb they'd lived in for ages. Why? He wasn't sure. Money, it turns out, is no substitute for imagination.
As for Miss Happily-Ever-After and Miss Gorgeous-Kiddies...hey, I'd been there, done that. In fact, had it been our 15th reunion instead of our 25th I'd have shown up with my husband and children, oblivious to the possibility that others might envy us. In that particular case my jealousy was motivated by pure nostalgia. Especially since my divorce, I'd pined for those early days of marriage and babies, back when my life was busy yet full of possibilities.
And it still was, wasn't it? I had much more autonomy now than I ever had while I was married -- something I'd failed to appreciate until I'd done this mental exercise. Since my divorce I'd been thinking of myself as the broken half of something, focusing only on what I'd lost. I had limped along in the shadow of the past, certain I was at the end of an era. But what if I decided I was at the beginning of one instead?
It's a pretty obvious revelation, I know. But the most significant revelations are often the most clichéd. (I've always had great faith in clichés. How else would they have attained cliché status?) My boys and I were due for a new start. My thoughts turned to our beloved family dog, who died just as my ex and I divorced. I hadn't had the heart or the desire to get another pet, but I knew the kids desperately wanted one. A few days later I made an announcement at dinner: "We're getting a kitten." They actually cheered.
That was the first decision I'd made that felt like starting fresh, and it's what I needed to shake my bad mood. We weren't broken or lacking. We were something else entirely -- a whole, happy family unto ourselves, ready to adopt a cat. That seemingly minor choice inspired me to make others. Instead of wasting time feeling sorry for myself, I devoted more energy to work. I started throwing dinner parties again, something I hadn't done since my ex and I separated. I bought a plane ticket to visit a friend one weekend when the kids were with their dad. These simple acts of independence invigorated me. I realized I could do some of the things my old friends were doing if I wanted to. I could travel, volunteer, decide where my money would go, and much more. And I wouldn't trade that kind of freedom for anything.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2011.