When I began teaching as a graduate student, publishing in magazines, and generally moving my life forward in visible ways, I learned a difficult lesson that accompanies progress: people don’t like it when you succeed.
They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to know about it. And if they become aware that you are bettering yourself, they will do whatever they can, exert whatever influence they have, to change that. They really would prefer that you sink back into a swamp of stuckness and frustration. And they find it highly offensive if you don’t accommodate them in this.
Somehow you moving forward makes them more aware of their own sense of inadequacy and stasis. And they will not stop trying to convince you, themselves, and anyone willing to listen that you’re really not so special. Your achievements, however modest, can cause friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to behave defensively towards you as they attempt to safeguard their fragile egos. This is especially true if you’re doing something that they wish they could do.
Granted, nobody likes to feel bad about themselves. But it can be shocking when you notice who your detractors are. Uncle Bob? You heard he got drunk at the reunion and offered up a loud unkind opinion about your novel, citing various incidents from your childhood and early adolescence to prove you “aren’t such hot shit.” What did you ever do to him? Juniper, that girl in accounting who wears the big sweaters? You talked to her, what, twice? Why is she spreading rumors about you? You might expect it from a direct competitor (even if there is a modicum of professional courtesy that can dial it down in most cases), but Millie from high school, talking trash about you on Facebook? You haven’t interacted with her since at least 1990. Has she been ruminating about you for 30 years? Maybe so. Or maybe she just looked you up yesterday.
There’s a word for this sort of person: hater, and the first thing you need to know is that haters can be anyone, given that the hate is not really about you. It’s about them. You’re just a convenient projection screen for the hater’s unflattering (and probably distorted) self-image. Unfortunately, the more visible you are, the more you seem to be getting your life together and doing what you want to do, the higher resolution those lousy images will have in the hater’s mind. And it’s far easier to tear someone else down than it is to engage in determined self-work. Some people are born with the efficiency and drive of the domestic land slug.
As much as I agree with Tim Teeman—that “haters gonna hate” is a fundamentally stupid expression “born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized”—there’s a reason it became a viral catchphrase, functioning as an updated version of the old “dog will hunt.” It’s simple. A thing behaves in accordance with its nature. And envy is ubiquitous.
Perform successfully—even in something as minuscule and transitory as getting your creative work published—and someone, somewhere, is bound to suffer as they compare themselves to you. That suffering breeds resentment. And, though it is inherently unwise, resentment often demands a soapbox. Publicly trashing someone can provide a moment of relief, a brief pause in the constant fecal downpour underway in the hater’s inner world. Who wouldn’t seek shelter from that storm, from a grinding sense of inferiority that never lets up?
Still, if you put yourself in front of the public in any way, you’d better be ready for this. Since at least 1880, with the rise of vaudeville, the cheap seats were situated in the top rear sections of theaters. If people up there didn’t like the performance, they heckled the actors and threw peanuts at the stage. It’s where we get the term, “peanut gallery.” And peanut throwing still takes place, only the gallery has now become synonymous with the broad scope of social media. So try not to take one in the eye if you can.
And because flying peanuts are inevitable, perhaps contemplate the enduring wisdom of Father Baltasar Gracián y Morales, Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite Jesuit social philosopher: The envious man dies not only once but as many times as the person he envies lives to hear the voice of praise; the eternity of the latter’s fame is the measure of the former’s punishment: the one is immortal in his glory, the latter in his misery.