The big white bus rolls into the Muni stop across the street from my apartment building every day. Some days I hardly notice it, other days, possibly when I am struggling (work stress, sleepiness, logistics, kids) I feel something else: envy and irritation. Sleek, protected, luxurious—the corporate shuttle bus looks delicious, and I am on the outside. I am envious of its gifts of productivity and convenience, whisking people to their destination while they daydream, write or think: a mini-vacation. Luckily, I love my work and I can make my own way. But I felt torn during the bus protests: they don’t make any sense when I think about them logically (no corporate shuttle buses just means more driving), but I can also understand people’s feelings of resentment. I believe it would be interesting for us to look at the internal and external situation that the envy indicates.
The corporate shuttle buses themselves are an ecological solution to the problem of each of these workers driving alone and polluting (Muni does not go to most of their workplaces). I would be advocating for these companies to bus their people, if they weren’t already doing it. I am also very glad that they are now paying for the use of public space at bus stops, that’s important.
But the buses are also getting so much attention because of the feelings we have about status, money, success, and the difficulties of life—the unconscious is at work here.
The buses are a potent symbol that some people are paid huge amounts of money, while other people are not. For those of us earning ordinary money for our creativity and dedication, and yet struggling to make ends meet in the Bay Area, the buses are the place that we see the inequality, and feel our twinge of envy, everyday. We are on the outside, we are not helped or protected, we are not paid enough to live with ease in San Francisco. It isn’t fair. These feelings are difficult to experience because they stir almost primal feelings of anxiety and dread. And it isn’t fair—it’s a messed-up system. There is a lot to change about it. Still, it is also an interesting question: how do we cope with these difficult feelings when they come up in any setting?
Envy is difficult to work with, and most adults have no earthly idea what to do with it. It can cause us to act out, to act unconsciously, to target the wrong people. Most of us attempt to repress these “ugly” feelings or pretend that we just don’t feel them, but strong feelings always come out. Sometimes in poor thinking about complex issues, and other times in addiction, abuse, depression, or anxiety. But if we explore these feelings, as we do on an individual level in therapy, we see them doing interesting things, pointing out what isn’t working, defending ourselves from poor treatment, or showing us where we could use some attention in our lives.
In my private practice, envy comes up a lot when people are being real—envy of other moms, feelings of shame and inadequacy in the face of others’ perceived success, and guilt about all of this. Facebook-status-jealousy alone could be a whole therapy practice niche (I’m almost kidding). But what is the secret dismay we sometimes feel for a second when a friend has a success or appears to be doing well? Though often combined with joy for them or a philosophical attitude, we wonder, which is real? Does feeling jealous mean I am a bad person? Can I be jealous and still not be petty or vindictive? Yes, we can feel jealousy and also process it, we can use it as an indicator for ourselves that we are needing something: attention, help, love, change, some laughs. Because of course the better we understand it, the less likely we are to act out and do damage. This is part of being a grown-up (one of the annoying parts).
The corporate bus “controversy” itself also allows us to take a serious look at money and status, a difficult realm to face and understand. Money may not always be what brings true pleasure and satisfaction, but in this society it “protects and soothes”, and it conveys status. Status, as the philosopher Alain de Botton points out, is about how others treat us. Mainly, are they nice to us? Are they helpful? Life can be so hard and it’s wonderful to be treated well; it usually makes us feel better about ourselves. Status means you get more and more well-treated (and it is often invisible—you don’t really know why). The opposite is painful. If you do not have a lot of status, things slow down, it’s harder to accomplish as much, you have fewer options, less flexibility, and you have more exposure to the difficult parts of life: the bullies on the bus, the customer service people who don’t help, the rules made to punish those with less (like big fees for overdrafts at banks), the stress of everyday survival. Each of us can try and understand ourselves in relation to these hard truths of the world, it makes us better people when we understand ourselves. And so we can use envy as an opportunity to think more deeply about what really matters.
It’s also worth saying here that I’ve noticed that there can be a kind of blindness that people with success can fall into, a fantasy that there was no luck involved (despite what is sometimes said). It is a way of avoiding other painful questions of deservingness that many successful people find difficult to bear. If we acknowledge that success is partly serendipitous, and that many creative, dedicated, hardworking people do not find conventional success—or conversely, that sometimes bad things happen no matter how hard you work or how good you are—then those at the top have to face that they are partly a product of luck too. That suggests the ethical imperative of sharing wealth in a very different way than how things are organized now. Like higher taxes and higher wages.
I believe that a meaning-laden kind of envy is one of the responses we are trying to sort out through the corporate bus “controversy.” There is a very real policy debate about what to do to make our city a great place to be, and these questions are very difficult to answer wisely. But just as in our personal lives, the only way we are going to make good decisions as a city is to recognize the difference between emotional reactions and thoughtful responses. We need both constructive policy to make a better society, and inner attention to make sure we are happy with our own lives and not driven by feelings of envy. And we all deserve meaningful work, and compensation enough for our time and creativity so that life can be loved and enjoyed.