Gustave Moreau, Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. 1875-76
A FEW YEARS AGO I realized, almost out of the blue, that envy is perhaps my greatest besetting sin. It was not something I was especially looking out for, but when recognition dawned it was unmistakable. My spiritual father, in his kind and non-judgemental way, agreed with this assessment. And so began a lifelong struggle with the green demon who captures so many of us.
Envy is often equated with jealousy, and the two certainly have a close relationship. But it is possible to be jealous without any envy, and indeed it is quite possible to be envious without any actual jealousy involved. What do I mean by these terms, then?
Jealousy, to my definition, is a sense of desiring what someone else has and what we do not. In and of itself it is therefore a relatively innocuous emotion—at times even a reasonable or downright positive feeling. Perhaps, for instance, my friend has just treated me to a delicious meal and I am jealous of the wonderful food he has prepared. We may discuss his technique, and swap a couple of recipes. My jealousy is sated, we have bonded and celebrated my friend’s skill, and I have learned something. A little dose of jealousy, treated the right way, has not only not harmed us but even done us some good. While jealousy can be much more destructive if there is no way for me to get what another person has, or if it drives me to desire things that I should not desire in the first place, the thing itself is largely amoral and its effects can vary a great deal depending on context.
Envy, on the other hand, is absolutely always toxic, even in the smallest doses. Envy, in my definition here, is the feeling that the success or attainment of another person is somehow damaging to me even when it is not. Imagine hearing about a colleague who has gotten a promotion; have you ever felt irritated by such an experience, as though the colleague’s success is somehow a bad thing for you? If you were up for the same job your disappointment is at least reasonable in the sense that your colleague getting the job instead of you did indeed impact your life. It is not good to wallow in such feelings, but they do at least make some level of sense. But most of us have probably felt this kind of thing even in situations where we were not competing for the job in the first place. Some part of us wanted that colleague to fail, even though his success has not hurt us in the slightest—even though we would never have wanted the job that our colleague just got. This is why envy often begins with jealousy, but can exist even without it. When I resent another person for their success, even when I myself truly do not want the success that they have, then I am envious without jealousy—perhaps the most irrational and toxic version of all, and far too common.
Like most toxic emotions, envy only really hurts the envious person. When I let myself wallow in envy I take nothing away from the person I resent—rather I build myself a tiny hell to inhabit where I am miserable every time I think of the other person’s success, or possessions, or good looks, or whatever it is. Envy is especially damaging when we begin to experience it even with our friends. As a writer I have had many friends publish wonderful books. My better nature is truly overjoyed every time—how delightful to see those we love attain such a challenging goal. But sometimes—more often than I would like to admit—there is another part of me that wishes they would have failed even though their success has done me no harm. My envy tries to work its way in. And if I allow it to do so, it will sap and annihilate one of life’s true delights: celebrating the success of another with sincere joy. How good it feels to lift a glass at the pub in celebration of someone else’s new book, or promotion, or house, or accolade! We are invited to partake in all the same excitement and happiness as our friend in such moments—an invitation that requires literally nothing of us. How great a reward, how delicious an experience, and all without any effort of our own. It is a pure and absolute gift—we are invited to the fullness of joy and celebration with another person having done all the hard work. Nothing could be more pleasurable. Yet, envy seeks to tear it down and turn it to the opposite. Sitting in envy we are instead sullen in the face of our friend’s joy. More than a lost opportunity, it is a brutally punishing experience. If it goes too far we will likely even lose the friendship itself, another of life’s great joys ground to powder by an insidious little demon snaking its way into us.
Recently I have been meditating on when and why I became so envious. In my experience, this is a sin that affects nearly everyone, but to wildly varying degrees. I have known many people who seem quite sincerely devoid of it, or nearly so. I have known many others who are far more consumed by it than even I am, and are thus unable to enjoy any good thing that happens to anyone else no matter what it might be. There must be an origin story for such differences, and while I cannot know where they come from in others, I can certainly reflect on where my own envious tendencies originate.
In my case I have come to believe that much of my envy is rooted in many years of childhood bullying and aggressive mockery. I do not say this to garner sympathy or excuse my tendencies. I want, rather, to be honest about the origins of this vice so that I can more effectively root it out in my soul. In my own case, I have come to think that much of my envy is born in an instinctive fear that was trained into me as a child. Over and over again in my youth I was attacked and called names, reminded every day that I was stupid, annoying, a poor athlete, a terrible artist, and in general the worst person that there could be. This is not especially unusual—children are shockingly cruel to one another. In my case this was a message often repeated even as I grew up, including by people I had hoped might love me. Once again, that is far from unique.
In my meditations I have come to realize that in a context such as this, the success of another person is dangerous. When another person was successful at something, it would be immediately rubbed in my face and used as further evidence of my complete uselessness. “I won first place,” the bullies might say, “which proves that you are a miserable failure and the world would be better if you were dead.” I wish these words were exaggerations, but these messages were all too explicit for me throughout my youth and even into adulthood.
This, I believe, helped to establish an instinctive pattern of fear in me any time another person did something well. It taught me that the success of others, even if it did not mean failure for me, was something that would hurt me. Others’ success would soon be used as a weapon; I needed to brace myself. Envy began taking the opportunity of this fear to grow within my heart, like a toxic mold that has found the right medium to begin taking over.
Today I am a grown man, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are also mature adults it is much more rare for me to be viciously attacked this way by others. It happens now and then (some people never grow up and remain bullies for life) but it is mercifully not a literally daily experience the way it was in childhood. Yet, the envy that made its way in during those early years remains even after its excuse for growing has long since vanished. The instinct to become fearful, angry, and resentful whenever something good happens to another is now rooted deep in my heart. I want it gone.
Reflecting on the origins of my envy has helped me to recognize something that as a child I could not see. Envy is rooted in a profound misapprehension of where success and good things come from, which misapprehension leads to ingratitude and quickly in turn to envy. For envy to function, we must first believe (as the world tells us to believe) that we ourselves are the cause of our own success, the source of our own property, the one to be credited with our own blessings. When I recognize that my own success cannot truly be credited to me, and moreover that this is also true for everyone around me, I develop a perspective on life that makes no room at all for envy. Let me explain a little what I mean.
Perhaps the simplest, and thus best, example of how this all works is in the realm of good looks. Even those of us not especially prone to envy have probably found ourselves envious of someone who is more beautiful than us at least a few times. Given that there is no objectively most beautiful person, this can happen to anyone; there will always be someone who seems yet more beautiful, and there will always be cause to be envious of them. In our culture, we quite often like to compliment one another on looking good, and if we receive such a compliment we respond with a “thank you,” as if to say that we are somehow responsible for being so attractive today. But the obvious truth is that a person’s good looks are not chosen by them in the slightest. And while perhaps they get a little credit for doing their makeup nicely, or selecting a hair dresser or barber who has provided a comely coiffure, nearly everything about our appearance is entirely out of our control. Yet beautiful people are frequently drawn into feeling superior to others thanks to a set of traits that they just happened to inherit, and those of us who are less attractive find that we often feel inferior thanks to things that we also cannot control.
This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous. We seldom apply such standards to nature, for instance. A mountain is simply beautiful, we do not give the mountain credit for this fact and tell it how it is better than other mountains. It is simply there, and it is simply beautiful—or not! Occasionally, nationalistic types will try to somehow take credit for their country being more beautiful than others, as though they designed it themselves; truly there can be few things more absurd than this. But in general we recognize that nature is no human’s creation, and its beauty simply exists, with credit only to God Himself for it all. Yet when it comes to a person’s beautiful face—equally a creation of God alone—we somehow feel blameworthy if we fall short, or superior to others if we rise above the average.
Beauty in nature and among humans is a pure gift that belongs to none of us and has been chosen by none of us. To be beautiful or ugly is not something that we control, and so it is radically absurd to measure our value on its basis. To be envious of another’s beauty is to give them credit that they do not deserve. They have done nothing at all to earn this gift—God alone is worthy of the credit. The beautiful person should recognize this about himself as well. Sadly, in our culture, beautiful people are seldom encouraged in this direction and people seeking to profit from the beauty of others will often encourage them to become profoundly vain and forget to Whom the credit belongs.
This is extremely easy to see with physical looks, but much the same is true of almost anything we might be envious of in life. Certainly my friend does get some credit for writing a book, but much less than we might think. The talent, the education, the opportunity, the connections, the mentorship that lie behind any good book—these are all gifts that my friend could not simply have chosen (and nor could I as a writer have chosen them for myself).
What this means is that we are all, very truly, just stewards of the gifts of God, and when we recognize this in ourselves and one another envy begins to vanish.
The only thing we can take any real credit or blame for is our own moral choices—whether we have cultivated our gifts well and made the most of them in service to God. Perhaps we have inherited a lot of money. We get no credit for this fact, of course. But we can choose to squander it on ourselves, or use it in service of our family, our community, and our Lord. When we see people around us who are truly noble and virtuous in this way, then this really is something to admire and look up to. To be jealous in a healthy way of another person’s virtue can spur us to grow ourselves in this direction. But what is perhaps rather surprising, at least in my own experience, is that virtue of this nature quite seldom breeds real envy in our hearts. The reason, I think, is that truly virtuous people are by definition humble about their virtue, and give credit where it is due for all good things: to God. A person who is sincerely humble about his talents, his successes, his good looks, or his possessions tends to disarm us because he is wise enough not to look down on us for not possessing these things. Where the bullies of my childhood used their gifts as proof of my worthlessness, the virtuous person simply recognizes them as gifts and invites those around him to celebrate the Giver of all gifts, and Him alone. When we accept the invitation, we find ourselves in that space of joy where we can delight in the good things given to another without any envy. He does not deserve them, and he knows this full well—and yet there they are, bringing light to the world. It is good and comforting to be around such a person, which quite obviously means we are all called to grow in the direction of such wisdom day by day.
But what about those who truly do lord their gifts over us as proof of their superiority? They do indeed invite us to envy. It is important not to be Pollyannish about these things. Our world is full of corrupt and mean-spirited people. The behaviour of my youthful bullies was reprehensible, and though fewer now there are still plenty of people like that out there. We will get nowhere if we pretend that we alone are the cause of our own envy. We live in a world where many around us are deliberately trying to kick up envy in our hearts, seeking to hurt us and cut us down, controlled themselves by their own envy and pouring it out like a toxin into the world. To truly crush envy in our hearts we must recognize how shockingly sinful those around us often are, just as King David does in so many of his psalms. It’s bad out there, it really is, and such people do indeed set us up to fail, and do indeed bear much blame for this.
But while the story of our envy might begin with those others, it can only continue when we choose to let it. I have come to think that one of the best things to do in light of such people is simply to recognize the truth of what they are doing with patience. A person who puts us down because they are better looking than we are has indeed received a true gift from God (the gift of beauty) but has failed to apprehend its origin or meaning. Such a person is a sinner just like me, making a mistake that I have made millions of times and will make many times again in the future. He has failed to see where his beauty comes from. He has taken credit that he does not deserve. And if he is truly mean he has used this misunderstanding to justify a still greater lie, namely the lie that I have no gifts and no value, and only he is beloved of God. In our world, there is a very good chance that this beautiful person has never even been told different—that he has always been given the message that he is indeed a better kind of human than others owing to the good looks that he randomly inherited. He is delusional, and doing damage in the world thanks to this delusion.
But there is still hope for this person. He remains beloved of his Creator. We know with absolute certainty that this is true because we can see that the Creator has given this man the gift of beauty—a gift totally undeserved, bestowed upon a sinner who has gone off and used it in the worst possible way. How great is God’s love for us all to give such gifts to such people! If God could not or would not do such things, then I myself would have been given no gifts, for I too have abused them all any number of times throughout life.
This beautiful person invites me to envy, but I choose whether to accept such a corrupt invitation. To conquer envy we must not take the bait of other sinners, nor cultivate it in our own hearts and dish it out to those around us. The man who thinks he is better than me thanks to his looks is simply mistaken. He has made an error in his judgement and understanding of the situation. I refuse to follow this error into envy of my own. His looks are real, and a gift from God. If he will not give thanks for this and understand it rightly, then I will stand firm in doing so within my own mind whether he likes it or not, and I at least will offer genuine and sincere prayers to God that this man may one day be free from the prison of this error. After all, he is the one suffering in his delusions, not me. It is not a happy life to rest your sense of value on something you cannot control. In the case of beauty this is the pathway to the aging movie star whose looks are eventually rendered disgusting in a misguided attempt to preserve them with surgery. In the case of other gifts, there are other pathways much the same.
For my own part, to combat envy I must give thanks to God for all good things in myself and in others. If they agree then we can celebrate our gifts together in joy. If not, then at least I will resist delusion for myself and celebrate inwardly on my own.
We are all merely gardeners of a small patch of earth with some good seeds planted by God in the soil. We are responsible for our gifts to be sure, but we can take no credit for them. When we water and weed properly, the tomatoes will spring up in August and we will enjoy their delicious flavour in our lives. But we are not their creator, and their sweetness is all the more delightful when we realize this.
My own envy, then, is built on a misunderstanding that was imparted to me by a fallen world, spread by others already sick with the disease. Ever since that time my envy has been embraced and cultivated in me by my own choice. To truly overcome it I must stand strong against the lies of my childhood bullies, and the bullies of today. I was never worthless just because they had been given gifts of their own. This was false, and I will make no space for that kind of deceit in my heart. But in the same stroke, I must make sure that I do not perpetuate such lies myself, holding myself in higher regard than those around me because of gifts that I did not earn or choose. Real humility is based on the truth—in overcoming delusion and misunderstanding. Envy dies when we recognize that all good gifts, whether given to us or anyone else, come only from God—no matter what those others or the world might say, no matter how often we ourselves forget. It is a mix of courage and patience that can bring us to the humility needed to rip envy out of our hearts and join the joyous feast of celebrating the countless gifts that have been given to those around us. It’s worth the struggle. While some forms of virtue may require us to endure suffering, a life free of envy is truly one of happiness and pleasure at almost every moment, for in such a life we enjoy good things everywhere we see them without cost to ourselves.