On Envy: A Distortion of Desire

February 28, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

A genie appears to an Englishwoman, a Frenchman and a Russian and tells them that he will grant any wish they desire. The Englishwoman says that a friend of hers has a charming cottage in the Cotswolds, and that she would like a similar cottage only with a few more rooms and a lake in front of it.  The Frenchman says that his best friend has a beautiful mistress and that he would like such a mistress himself, except with longer legs and a bit more in the way of culture and chic. The Russian, when asked what he would like, tells of a neighbor who has a cow that gives a vast quantity of the richest milk, which yields the heavenliest cream and the purest butter.  “I vant that cow,” says the Russian, “dead.”  (Adapted from Joseph Epstein’s book Envy)

Envy is a killer.  Mostly it destroys the insides of the envier, who eats him or herself up inside with the imagined injustice of someone else having something that he deserves, or that she thinks she deserves, or simply covets. “Of the seven deadly sins,” writes Joseph Epstein, “only envy is no fun at all… Little is good about envy, except shaking it off, which, as any of us who have felt it deeply knows, is not so easily done.” It is not easy, but it can be done. More on that in a moment.

Is envy an emotion? Is it a character flaw? Is it a sin? Perhaps all of those things, but I would characterize envy foremost as an obsession, one that grips the sufferer with such irrational passion that it can make them physically ill. I disagree with the classical moralists who included envy in the category of the cold-blooded, intellectual sins while grouping gluttony, lust and anger together as the supposedly hot-blooded, bodily-oriented ones. Envy is not just an obsession of the mind – it can be quite physical, as anyone who has suffered the pangs of jealousy knows.

Perhaps envy even has its origins in the biological imperative to survive. Some psychologists trace envious feelings to the time of breast-feeding and liken envy in the human heart to the primal fear felt by a puppy in a too-large litter who cannot get at the mother’s teat for food.  Envy can be a kind of desperation, and I think it is a perversion of desire.  Envy begins with the anxiety that grips one who fears that there is not enough for them: not enough milk at first, then not enough love… not enough money…not enough esteem in the world to support their basic ego needs. Not enough. Someone else got a bigger piece of the pie than I did, and I can’t even taste the pie for thinking about the injustice of that.

The last time I preached on jealousy (which is similar to envy), I reminded us of that moment in the Genesis story when the elder brother, Cain, kills his brother Abel in a fit of envious rage because God favored Abel’s gift over his own.  You remember Cain’s surly reply when God asks him where his brother is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Envy doesn’t want to be anyone’s keeper. It wants to keep to itself, keep everything for itself.  It wants to keep score.

We experience envy as individuals, but being social animals with a talent for attracting each other’s dysfunctions, envy can also work very well through groups, too. The scapegoating of a people that leads to genocide often begins with envy: those people have more land, their children live longer, they seem to be particularly good at certain things that threaten another group’s sense of competitive advantage. Again, the scarcity mentality comes into play and rather than appreciating, admiring, celebrating, envy sets in. And then setting apart, bullying, ostracizing, killing.

Closer to home, in real life in our time, a group of envious teenaged girls in South Hadley, Massachusetts became obsessed with freshman Phoebe Prince, an exceptionally pretty and reportedly very sweet girl whose dating of a football player they found threatening.  (I don’t think things have changed very much since you and I were in high school: you remember the Darwinian jungle of social status and ranking. The jocks have held a place at the top of the hierarchy for as long as I can remember. To date a jock – especially an upperclass one – has long had the power to incur the envious wrath of queen bees and their hive). These queen bees joined together to taunt Phoebe – sometimes at school, but mostly via e-mail and Facebook and text messages on her phone.
Phoebe Prince, who had recently arrived to South Hadley from Ireland, committed suicide on January 14th.  Two days before the cotillion that was the highlight of the high school social calendar, her 12 year-old sister found her hanging in her closet.  Even after her death, the vicious girls who had tormented her to death continued to post nasty messages on her Facebook page, mocking her in death. Two of them have been expelled, and several others have left the school of their own will. The faculty and administration of the school are taking hard hits from the public, who are asking “How could this happen?”

Although this is an extreme case, it has the same tragic dimensions as the Bible story of Cain and Abel or the Shakespearean drama of “Othello.”  If nothing else, the consequences of envy’s destructive instincts always smack of futility for those who don’t understand how envy really works, how poisonous it is, and how treacherous and irrational the lies it tells: “You should have what she has. Or “He deserves to suffer because you don’t have what he has.”

Meanwhile, the object of one’s envy often remains totally unaware that she is receiving all this attention, this psychic invasion.

To learn that one is the object of another person’s envy is a creepy feeling.  Let me tell you the story about a woman who attended a high school reunion some years ago. Perhaps this has happened to you. It is not an unusual occurrence.  This woman was cornered in a booth at the country club bar by a very inebriated former schoolmate of hers – a gal she had liked but not known well, who was part of the popular jock crowd while she was part of the theatre geek cohort.  The woman, let’s call her Meredith, held her old schoolmate’s hand and poured out how much she had envied her during the four years they had spent in high school. “You did all those plays and you were such an individual,” she confessed, “while I was trying to be like everyone else. You got the part I wanted in ‘Grease’ and I was so jealous of you I went to every performance and stewed about it, and went home and sang your songs in front of the mirror. I always loved your crazy clothes. I was such a boring preppy and you wore purple shoes and matching eyeliner.”

The other woman would actually rather have not been reminded of that.

Meredith’s confession went on for a long while, and though other people stopped by to greet the two women, they quickly saw by Meredith’s grip on her companion’s hand and her weepy, intent gaze on her face that they should not interrupt.  All of them ignored the other woman’s “Please rescue me” expression. and crept away.

Finally releasing the other woman’s hand, Meredith brought out her wallet and showed her companion photos of her six children and her husband, all living in Florida. “I love my kids,” she said. “I love them but I wonder what my life would have been if I had had the courage not to do what was expected of me all the time.”

Envy is a distortion of desire. To learn that Meredith had devoted all of that time to a secret, one-sided relationship with her in high school was deeply unsettling to the woman.  She had seen Meredith almost every day and had no idea that Meredith even really knew who she was, let alone thought about her at all. She told Meredith that night that she wished she had known, as they could have been friends, and it would have been fun to prepare for auditions together. She said to Meredith how much she had always liked her, that she remembered her fondly as a nice, smart and kind schoolmate. “Meredith, it’s like we dated or something,” she said, “and I wasn’t on any of the dates.”

The tragic element of envy isn’t just that it is so often joined with hatred, it is also very sad.  Someone else excels at something, which means that I cannot?  Someone else has found a dream job, or a lovely romance, or an exciting trip, which means that I will not? Someone else seems to be a free spirit, yet I feel that I cannot be? There is no shortage of love or interesting things to think, attempt or to become in this life. Envy is a cruel liar always whispering “not enough, there’s not enough” even in the midst of possibility and abundance.

But Envy is not a disease with no treatment and no cure. 

When envy strikes, the first step to a cure is to reflect on our own strengths, creative possibilities, and most important – to find the strength and maturity to be happy for other’s good fortune, good looks, talents and possessions. This can be an effort, but so can exercising and eating more vegetables – two other things that create health. When envy claws at our hearts we  must pull the claws out and refuse to participate in what a friend of mine calls “emotional stalking.” Let it go.  Make no man or woman unwitting participant in our resentment. The only thoughts we actually have moral permission to have about others are the same kinds we would wish them to have about us: that is, kind or at least fair ones. To rephrase the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to think about someone, don’t think anything.” When someone achieves something you wish you had, send them a bouquet a flowers and a note of congratulations. And then get yourself a bouquet and send yourself a note of congratulations for not descending into envy.

Look for evidence of plenty and abundance in the world. As a single traveler to the romantic city of Paris, I have loved watching smoochy couples cuddle by the Seine.  They always made me feel hopeful about romance. Friends of mine have said, “I would never go to Paris alone. It would be too depressing. I’d be so jealous of all the couples.” Depressing!!? With all that romance in the air, you cannot help but fall in love with life itself, even if there is no one to kiss by the Seine. Abbodanza! Viva l’amour!
One of the most powerful antidotes to feelings of envy is simply to reflect, even for a long moment or two, on the pain inherent in all lives, and on the suffering that is certainly part of the envied person existence.  “Remember when your mother died,” Meredith asked the woman at the reunion, “And you were the star in the spring musical and you went on for opening night the same day as your mother’s funeral? It was like a movie. You were like the star in a movie. I’m so ashamed to admit this, but I had fantasies where I put myself in your place, where everyone was feeling sorry for me and whispering about me in the halls.”

The woman, hearing this, asked Meredith for her wallet which held all the photos of her cute children and her sweet-looking husband.  She herself had never married and had no children.  “Meredith,” she said. “Let’s swap. I’ll be a happily married mom of six in warm, sunny Florida and own a beautiful home. In exchange, you be me at seventeen years old and can have the shattering heartbreak of your mother’s death, and all parts in all the plays you ever wanted, and all that attention What do you say?” The two women smiled at each other. The spell was broken – the bad enchantment smashed like a champagne glass thrown against the fireplace – and all of the envy remembered and felt from all those years ago dissipated.  The women parted with hugs and promised to keep in touch, although of course they never did.

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life, asks the poet Mary Oliver.  So many things. Anything.  Everything. And hopefully, you will not waste one wild and precious moment of it believing in that lying, thieving little monster, Envy.  If Envy has made a room in the home of your heart, send it off today, with a thank you for teaching you so much about who you really want to be.  Feed Envy a nice lunch and show it the back door. It will whine and complain, but send it off and lock the door firmly behind it. I promise that you will be glad you did.