An Exploration of Envy

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about one of the seven deadly sins:  sloth.  As I said then, I planned to revisit these sins, at least in my blog, if not in actuality.  And then move on to the seven cardinal virtues if I ever found out what those were.  So today’s post explores the sin of envy.

First, it’s rather interesting that the sin is envy rather than jealousy, a state of mind with which envy is often confused.

The Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1620) - Envy

Envy--Image via Wikipedia

Jealousy is defined as:

1.  resentment against a rival, a person enjoying success or advantage, etc., or against another’s success or advantage itself.
2.  mental uneasiness from suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., as in love or aims.
3.  vigilance in maintaining or guarding something.

Envy is defined as:

1.  a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.

The first definition of jealousy and that of envy, I think, is where the confusion reigns.  But the basics are clear.  Envy is a feeling of wanting what someone else has, something one does not have oneself, while jealousy is more a fear of losing what one has or resentment about what somebody else has.

So, heavens above, when envy’s very definition is more benign than jealousy’s, why in the world is envy the sin?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in scripture, God states that he/she/it/them/whatnot is “a jealous God.”  I presume this means in the third sense of the definition of jealousy, that of guarding vigilantly.  So, perhaps it would be kind of difficult to name jealousy a sin if God is proud of being jealous.

But since it’s envy that’s the sin, let’s explore it.  In the first place, aware all my life that envy is a sin, I have worked not to envy other people’s lives or possessions.  This works about as well for me as it probably works for you or anybody who isn’t Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama.  Oh,  come on, of course I envy those people, whether they are my friends or strangers, who much more effortlessly than I maintain a slim figure; or those whose health and fitness leaves mine in the dust (literally, usually); or those with better taste, greater talent, more attention from the world, better publicists, a publisher, an agent, a close friendship with Ridley Scott, prettier things, better clothes, more money, and a greater ability to attract the close, ahem, romantic attention of the gender they prefer.  Or an Oscar.  And when some competitive specific something takes place, such as a writing contest, I envy the winner (which I almost never am).  And these feelings can make me miserable, at least for a while.

What does that mean, then, for me?  That envy is an awareness of what I lack, whether that be a thing, a person, a character trait, an opportunity, or a place in the world.  That I, for the time I feel envious, feel lacking, feel less than.  So it’s an uncomfortable emotion, one I don’t enjoy, one which taints my world.  And one which results in, usually, a sequence of mental and emotional events.  The first event is, of course, a deep desire to wrap myself and a tub of Haagen-Daaz (rum raisin for choice) in my warmest comforter and watch old movies without really seeing them.  Done judicially, this is not the worst possible response to an envy crisis (in my case, I don’t eat sweets, so some gluten-free crackers and hummus usually substitutes for the ice cream and I’m more often likely to read a Georgette Heyer novel than watch an old movie, but the principle is the same).  At least, it’s not the worst response if you unwrap the comforter and stop eating the treat at least about the time the movie ends or you finish the novel.  Cocooning in this fashion for much longer than that unfortunately has a tendency to become the problem, rather than address it.

The second event, in my case, is usually a long out-loud monologue (one of the advantages of living by myself) while taking a hot bath in which I denounce everyone or anyone who has what I wanted, explaining to those who made the choice that left me lacking where they went wrong, and then by the time the bath water cools explaining to myself that things aren’t so bad, that perhaps the achievement or possession or person I’m forced to do without is not that desirable, and finally–and here’s where I get down to the real problem–what I did or did not do that made this misery happen.  There’s also the chance here to inject a small dose of realism, often along the lines of the simple fact that with the possible exception of those miserable souls that get perfect SAT scores and Olympic gold medals, every single one of us knows that somebody out there is better at whatever it is we’re doing that we are.  So between figuring out what I could have done better and facing a certain reality that no matter how much I give something my personal best, there’s still a likelihood that somebody else in a world of seven billion people is going to outshine me, I often manage to pull myself out of the slough of despond, as John Bunyan would have put it (and he put it so well, I’m pretty sure he spent some time there).

The third event in this marathon comes when I start to think about what I have to do to fix this, which pretty much boils down to how I can change what I’m doing in order to obtain this whatever it is I want and feel cheated out of, or, alternatively, how I can stop wanting it.  There is a third option, too, which comes under the heading of acceptance of reality.  This kind of takes care of all possibilities, after all.  But let’s look at them with a little more focus.  If what I’m envying is an achievement someone else has made; then thought, action, some change in behavior might possibly get me that something.  And so I will start to think of what it will take, and if it will take more than I am willing to expend.  If what I’m envying is a thing that can be bought or made, my thoughts will turn to whether I can afford it (a log house, uh, no; a pair of red jeans, yes), whether I need it (an iPad, no, a new set of tires, yes), whether I want it and how desperately (an iPad, YES, a new set of tires, no).  And so forth.  If what I’m envying is a state of being (serenity anyone?) or a person who either I will never meet or who has demonstrated that he’s just not that into me (Russell Crowe, anyone?), then I must determine if anything I can do can change that situation.  So, in other words, my job after identifying the enviable thing, person or whatnot, is to determine why I don’t have it, if I can achieve the desirable thing/person/situation through my own efforts, if the achievement is worth the effort it would take to obtain it, and, finally, if the enviable thing, person or whatnot is unobtainable by me through any means I can devise, if I can let it go or, at the least, accept that I won’t be able to get it (at least not right now or through anything but sheerest luck) and find some way to live with that.  This last has to do with learning to live in the real world, in which there are much fewer enviable things than there are people who want them and so, even were I to do my absolute best, to do everything possible, to be completely and always exceptional, luck will indeed play a part.  My getting an Oscar, in other words, does not depend on my abilities and efforts alone.  Meryl Streep got her third Oscar for best performance by an actress last night.  It was her 17th nomination.  I rest my case.

An Enviable Thing

Whew, that’s a lot of mental work to go through just because I want an iPad.  But after all it depends on how much something is wanted, needed, and thus how deep the lack, the hole in the soul.  I can live without an iPad (well, I suppose, if bamboo shoots were stuck under my fingernails, I’d have to admit that).  And, besides, and this is not a rationalization, the longer I wait, the cheaper they’ll become.  Selling my novel has to do with effort, expertise and possibly talent, so I can create a plan and follow it that will get me closer than I am now.  (Obviously, finishing the darned thing is completely up to me and step one to selling it.)  Russell Crowe?  Or any such heart’s desire that is not a thing or an achievement, but another person?  Well, not so much.  It’s not a reasonable thing (person, forgive me) to want some person as a possession and assume that will mean they love us as we wish to be loved.  The slave owners of the old South spent a lot of time justifying their position and insisting that the slaves loved their masters and wouldn’t have it any other way.  We know how that turned out.  We want another person to love us unconditionally, but we don’t take into account the wishes, the tastes, the desires, the PERSONHOOD, of that other person.  Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Colin Firth–any or all of these wonderful actors may enchant me, but I have no way of knowing whether that enchantment comes from their own selves or their incredible (and true) talent in creating a character.  Perhaps, indeed probably, it is the character or even body of work that I have fallen for.  These men have lives, tastes, problems, personalities, that I know nothing about and may or may not like.  It’s like assuming I know exactly what the afterlife will be.  I’m virtually certain that whatever my assumptions, the afterlife will be something else that I cannot even imagine.  So as long as I don’t take up stalking as my next hobby, so long as I recognize that this is a person, no matter how desirable, no matter how enviable, I’m not going to get, AT ALL, I can still enjoy watching a movie starring one of the three with warm feelings in my breast.  Or somewhere.

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

But does this, short of stalking, theft or murder, rise to sin?  I’m not at all sure.  Looking up at those definitions at the top of this blog, jealousy sounds more like a deadly sin to me.  So, as we did with sloth, let’s look at the advantages to the establishments (both religious and civil) of defining envy as a sin.  There is an old prayer in centuries-past England that goes something like “God bless the squire and his relations, and keep us all in our proper stations.”  That can argue anything from active oppression to mere complacency, but I can tell you this, the squire and his relations telling the lower orders that envy is a sin are reinforcing this pleasant (to the squire and his relations) state of affairs.  It is much easier to have a lovely life if the laborers underneath are tugging their forelocks and bending their knees in between scrubbing the floors and plowing the fields.  Now this makes me sound much more radical than I am, but then again I lived most of my life in an America where us forelock-tuggers have not just the opportunity, but practically the mandate to quit that, get an education, find a job that doesn’t require forelock-tugging and move up in the world.  It doesn’t seem to be as easy to do that now as it used to be, but then, it probably never was as easy as it seemed.  It’s just that here in this country it was not only possible, it was something each of us was supposed to do.  As opposed to other countries in which whatever slice of heaven or hell you got born into, there you were, stuck for the rest of your life with only eternity to look forward to.  Another quote that has informed my thinking on this, this time from Emile Zola and translated (badly) from the French:  “The French authorities have, in their infinite wisdom, declared that it is as illegal for a prince to sleep under a bridge as it is for a peasant.”  I believe this is from “L’Assimoir,” but I’m not sure.  So envy, like sloth, is a sin that is very useful for those who are defining sin, and a lot more troublesome for those who have to live under that definition.

So, parsing what we’ve put together about envy so far, I believe it can be two things, separately or at once.  Envy can be debilitating, a way of hiding in your room because you’ll never have what you want and everybody else does and the world sucks.  Or, envy can be a spur to action.  That person has what I want, so I’ll figure out a way to get it.  Put in that sense, envy is a root cause of all achievement in the world, goading the hired hand who envies the farmer into saving his pitiful earnings until he, too, can own a piece of land of his own.  Of course, envy can cause us to do very inappropriate things to get what we want, starting with lies and moving right up through every kind of crime, including murder.  But kept in bounds, envy is at least one of the reasons why people get college degrees, lose weight, dye their hair, wear attractive clothes instead of sweats, work when they don’t feel like it, and actually create.  It might not be the best reason, and it undoubtedly will not be the reason given in the bios, but it’s there, working away all the time.

When it is debilitating, envy is then something to rise above or work through.  There is an old aphorism that states that if each person in the world put their own dirty laundry out in a square and then could choose to take anybody else’s, we’d all take back our own.  Because that’s another thing about envy.  We often envy without knowledge, thinking that what somebody else has is worth any amount of worry and care and misery to get, when if we only knew, we’re  better off without it.  This has never been said better than in a poem called “Richard Cory,” by Edward Arlington Robinson:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

10 responses

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  2. There are some interesting points in time on this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity however I’ll take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish extra! Added to FeedBurner as well

  3. I was very pleased to find this web-site.I wanted to thanks for your time for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post.

  4. Oh, and the seven cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, restraint (temperance), and courage (fortitude). The three theological virtues are faith, hope and love (charity is a bad mis-translation).

  5. Wow! Dissertations have consisted of less than this. Envy is one of the miserable Seven Deadlies for me (along with Anger, Greed, and Pride). These are the sins that truly make your life miserable and corrode from within. Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony may not be good for you (especially Gluttony) but at least they feel good. And I never thought of the difference between envy and jealousy. Need to think more.

    BTW, the last verse of “Richard Cory” tells us as much about the narrator (“[we] went without the meat, and cursed the bread”) and the human condition as it does about Richard. More, in fact.

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