Number 2 on the roll of the Se7en Deadly Sins is envy. Envy is second on the Highway to Hell Sin List, as it lags behind pride a wee little bit in being the nastiest and most common vice. Primal in its poison, envy forms a big chunk of the foul compost heap that stimulates the growth for human stupidity aplenty.
Envy (like pride), is an extremely deadly sin that doesn’t get the verbal hailstorm that other sins get in our current culture with its totemic view of vice. Someone who’s been saddled by the envy monkey will probably not make the evening news like a politician who’s been caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.
No, envy is not that sexy and it doesn’t have the buzz that zings around a loudmouthed, bloated and hateful lesbian, or a priest who’s a porn addict or a greedy Enron exec. Because this sin doesn’t get the National Enquirer’s attention like the more juicy transgressions, we tend to see it as less naughty. But be not deceived, my brethren: this sin is a double meat whopper of deft disaster once it sticks its talons into a person, or a party, or a religion, or a nation.
Another distinguishing feature about the funk of envy is that it is no fun. Y’know, I’m not supposed to say this, but, most sins are enjoyable. C’mon . . . you know they are. Sure, the peccadillo’s pleasure is a passing one, but the fact remains that they are tasty; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t entertain them. All vices sport a momentary spice. All of them, that is, except for envy. Envy is the one sin the sinner will never like or admit. You’ll never see someone who is envious chilling out, laughing his butt off, or relaxing with his homies while this demon is in the house. The more envy grows, the more it drives its impenitent coddler insane.
So, what is envy? I’ll start with what it is not. It’s not admiring what someone else has and wanting some good stuff also. This desire will make you get off your butt in the morning and get busy. It is good to crave. A man’s appetite will make him work.
Where envy differs from admiration/emulation is that envy is “sorrow at another’s good” (Thomas Aquinas). Someone who’s centered can watch another person, or a party, or a nation righteously prosper and not hate them for it.
The whacked, petty, envious idiot sees someone else excel and is slapped in the face with the reality that he just got dogged. So, instead of sucking it up and working harder and smarter, the unwise envious freak allows his pride to fuel his wounded wittle spirit. This sets the dejected perp down a path of disparagement of the prosperous that eventually morphs into the desire to destroy the person, party or nation that has just trumped this poor little chump.
Os Guinness states that the sin of envy has several common characteristics:
1. Envy is the vice of proximity. We are always prone to envy people close to us in temperament, gifts or position.
2. Envy is highly subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder. It is not the objective difference between people that feeds envy, but the subjective perception. As a Russian proverb says, “envy looks at a juniper bush and sees a pine forest.”
3. Envy doesn’t lessen with age. It gets worse, as we run into more and more people of happiness and success, offering more fodder for envy.
4. Envy is often petty but always insatiable and all consuming. However small the occasion that gives rise to it, envy becomes central to the envier’s whole being. The envier “stews in his juice.” Envy begins with pride and then plunges the person into hatred.
5. Envy is always self-destructive. What the envier cannot enjoy, no one should enjoy, and thus the envier loses every enjoyment. The envier’s motto is “if not I, then no one.” As an eighth-century Jewish teacher put it, “the one who envies gains nothing for himself and deprives the one he envies of nothing. He only loses thereby.”
So, how does one get out of this Salieri-like sinkhole? Where does one run to find the antibiotic for this soul poison called envy? Well, first off, you’re not going to get the cure at Walgreen’s. If this thing is on you like stink on a monkey, you must quickly realize that you are in way over your head and you need some divine assistance to get you out of this small-minded and venomous trap.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, tabled the virtue of mourning (try this) in contrast to the vice of envy. Again, Guinness writes, “If envy is defined as, ‘sorrow at another’s good,’ its counterpoint (mourning) is sorrow at another’s evil, grieving with others in their affliction or loss. Whereas envy weeps at those who celebrate and celebrates at those who weep, mourning weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice.”
Guinness goes on: “Envy stands apart from others, aware only of differences that rankle. Its typical movement is from self-centeredness to self-sufficiency to solitariness. Mourning, on the other hand, stands beside others. Its movement is from suffering to sympathy to solidarity. Whereas envy is competitive, mourning is compassionate. Envy never sees people but only comparisons between itself and others; it treats giving as a matter of diminishing returns for itself. Mourning, however, ignores comparisons and sees people. It treats giving as a matter of compound interest and multiplying dividends.”
This column’s running long, and I really don’t know how to wrap it up—plus I’m running late for dinner—so I’ll just slam in an appropriate quote regarding envy by John Adams. Check it out :
“This passion, while it is simply a desire to excel another, by fair industry in the search of truth and the practice of virtue is properly called emulation. When it aims at power as a means of distinction, it is Ambition. When it is in a state of mortification at the superiority of another and desires to bring him down to our level or to depress him below us, it is properly called, Envy. These observations alone would be sufficient to show that this propensity in all its branches is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life, and that the history of mankind is little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects.”
To be continued . . .