Q: In spite of doing everything right, my life didn’t work out the way I dreamed. I went to the best college and grad school, and while my job is fulfilling, it doesn’t pay well. Also, I’m in my late 40s but I never found the right guy, so I remain unmarried and childless. My best friend, on the other hand, has everything I ever wanted even though on paper the cards seemed stacked against her. She went to a small college with no reputation, has no master’s degree, yet she makes at least twice my salary. Even though she’s been overweight her whole life, she landed a great guy and is happily married with a child.
What brought this all to a head is that they bought the vacation home of my (unrealistic) dreams, and now all my best friend talks about is the new home and the lavish remodeling they’re doing. Lately, it’s all I can do not to scream, “Stop shoving evidence of your perfect life in my face!”
The thing is, she’s a great person and it’s not her fault her life worked out and mine didn’t. How do I stop my jealousy from destroying a 20-year friendship?
A: Wait — who says your life didn’t “work out”?
First of all, it didn’t work out as you had planned. Important distinction.
Second, it’s not over. It may seem like an obvious point, but you have an unknown number of years before all the data are in on whether you can give yourself a hug and say, “Good choices, me — that went well.”
As I think about it, maybe that’s not so obvious a point. In a culture oriented toward youth, there’s a tendency to see the finish line as something you cross when you’re 18 (bragworthy college admission) or by 30 (marriage within the fat part of the curve) or by 40ish (procreation and/or high income). The idea that a person can connect with that feeling of “Yes, this is what it’s about” at virtually any age is often lost in the rush. Pity.
Third, doing “everything right” is about maximizing options, not securing guarantees. Too often it’s sold as the latter.
Still, at 40-something, it’s time to recognize that yourself. She’s fat and went to No-Name U, and still got the guy and the vacay house? And, “It’s not her fault her life worked out”? Yikes. It’s also never too late to hunt down residual teenage values and think, “Wow, those kinda suck.”
Fourth — but really a combination of the first three points — is that the options your crack education and fulfilling career (not to be minimized, by the way) and, yes, capacity for loving best-friendship have provided you are still on the table, all of them. You have more options than most because you answer to no one but you.
So let’s say you have 30 or so years of life left to work with. What would you like to do with them? You’re limited to choices entirely within your control: You can’t make someone hire you, love you or imbue you with magical powers, but that still leaves you with, objectively speaking, an enviable range of opportunity with the significant gifts you have.
Whether you’d re-choose your life as it is or take it on a surprising turn, or somewhere in between, that is the answer to your envy: to build a life you fully embrace out of the material you have, instead of staying doggedly on the path that you — or your parents or society or whoever else — thought at age 17 was the only right way to go.
Your friend won the beaten-path lottery, yes, good for her. But what about all those other trails, all that other territory that humans have at their disposal and that suits their particular gifts? Have you even looked, to see what’s in it for you? Have you looked to see what you can bring to others?
Changing your emotional expectations is difficult, even painful, yes. It’s also liberating, especially when the old ones have no purpose left except to remind you of whom you’d always assumed you would be.
Washington Post Writers Group