How to Avoid Poisoning Your Entire Life with Envy2
August 20, 2013 by lucieromarin
So. Two people get nightmares; both want them to stop. The first, however, has had nightmares since childhood, because she has always had a retentive, easily-disturbed imagination. The second only started getting his nightmares after a car crashed into his house and exploded in flame. Obviously, then, they’ll be treated differently; one person needs training; the other, healing.
Something similar can be said of vice. Some vices are just the dark side of the temperament you were born with; you can train yourself out of them. Other vices are the symptoms of something; identify the ‘something’, and you’ll conquer the vice faster than if you view it in isolation.
The title of this post is a little fraudulent, as I cannot claim to have avoided envy; I can say, however, that I used to be full of this poison, and now I’m not, so I thought I’d try to remember how this happened, in case any of the memories were useful.
1. Envy is sadness at the good of another. The first step to detoxing from this vice is to accept that you have it. I know that sounds obvious, but it isn’t always. It’s like a new plant appearing in the garden; first, you don’t notice it, then you can’t identify it, then you tell yourself it’s nothing to worry about, and then one day you step outside and find that all the roses have been choked and the garden is waving with the mouths of a hundred Venus fly-traps.
I didn’t really notice my envy, at first, because it wasn’t the habit of a lifetime. I knew an habitually envious woman; it was as though she walked around with a badly-staunched wound; it just sat there, quietly oozing, no matter what she said, no matter what she did. My problem was more like the sudden fierce whip of a snake out of the grass and back in again, so that I, ambling along quite happily, suddenly found myself curled up in the grass clutching my heart and my ankle, wondering what bit me.
2. Most pious literature was not helpful, because I felt people trying to reason me out of it: “Think of this, this, and this blessing that you have and this, this, and this Cross that the other person has that you don’t”. Really? How about you give me your house then, and you can count your blessings while you live on the street? Okay, look, this advice isn’t false; it’s just that it implies that, for one filled with angst as a result of comparing her fortunes with others’, the solution lies in a different kind of comparison. No! It’s comparing fortunes that causes the angst in the first place! A different kind of noticing is still noticing; it still preserves the underlying habit of comparison.
Also, I know that God knows what He’s doing and has ordered all things etc etc, but to someone in the throes of envy, this just sounds like a fob-off. See, telling me that I don’t deserve any of God’s blessings only reminds me that neither did any of the people who got blessed, so now, I’m not only envious, but also resentful. Swimming in gratitude for having a bedroom just seems like trying to pretend that I don’t know that most people my age have houses. It’s a denial of reality, not an embrace of it.
3. Much better than trying to reason about comparative fortunes is simply to kick the habit of comparison. It takes effort. It can be done. Also, it’s not necessary to try to pour all the gratitude you’d reserved for vocation/babies/life-savings etc into a rented bedroom and a spare pair of shoes. You can’t pretend that other people don’t have stuff that you don’t have. You also can’t get angsty about it. What do do then? Well, sorry this is kind of pious, but please bear in mind that I’m speaking from the experience of swift-and-savage-snake-poison here; a quick and deadly sting needs immediate antivenom, and for me, that came in the form of the aspiration, “May I glory in my neighbour’s glory,” which I prayed immediately, and repeatedly, for as long as necessary, until the throbbing pain of the bite subsided.
To glory in your neighbour’s glory doesn’t deny the reality of difference. It doesn’t pretend that we’re all identically blessed; it doesn’t cover up that mystery with platitudes; it doesn’t force you to lower your eyes and say, “Well, I never deserved what she had, anyway.” It does, however, transform that difference. This sounds very pious, but all I can say is that praying this aspiration frequently and fervently was like seeing a dark crack in the universe heal itself, while everything that sat under the shadow and dust of that crack became transfigured from within.
4. From here, it became much easier to see envy, not as a vice in isolation, but as the result of badly-managed pain. A great help here was Marilynne Robinson’s indescribably wonderful and amazing novel, ‘Gilead,’ in which her elderly protagonist writes: “I have been candid with you about my suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children, especially Boughton’s – not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my my own.”
I read that, and I thought…oh.
I used to love going to weddings. Then, the brides got younger and younger, and I started to hate it. Then I started to hate anyone who told me she was dating. Then I read this passage, and experienced the dawning horror of realising that I had a vice I didn’t know I had. Then I failed miserably at conquering it. Then I read the passage again and realised that I wouldn’t envy others their lives if I felt less miserable about my own. Then I talked about that – rather than about the envy – to God. What do you know – I like weddings again. (I mean I like the ceremony and the exchange of vows. Receptions are a chore and I hope to avoid as many of them as possible.)
5) Can you tackle envy with gratitude? I’m going to say both ‘no,’ and ‘yes’ I’ve already mentioned the count-your-blessings fob-off. Also the feeling of having to look around for things to be grateful for only emphasises to the suffering person that the greatest longings of her heart have gone unfulfilled. Who wants to go round saying, “Oh, I’m so grateful for my new desk,” to friends who are talking about how grateful they are that wedding was a success or the new baby was safely delivered?
However, it is still important to notice as much as possible to be grateful for, not only because it’s the truth, but because you need to train your mind to look away from other people’s lives and into your own. You know when you spill wine onto the carpet, and then pour salt into the wine to soak it up? Each little note of gratitude is like that – even if it’s just being grateful that the train came on time. Make sure mental prayer always begins with thanksgiving; it’s not about pretending you don’t need the great desires to be filled because you’re content with these little things; it’s about being truthful, about breaking out of a mental rut; about soaking up the spilled wine with a thousand tiny grains of salt.
In summary, then:
1) Admit you have the vice.
2) Slap an aspiration on it every time it strikes.
3) Thank God for as much as you can (not as a way of patronising yourself, but as a way of hitting back at destructive habits.)
4) Work out if it’s actually just a symptom of something else.
5) Tackle the something else.
Oh! I just thought of something. I can imagine this on a cross-stitched sampler, or on one of those little pink plaques decorated with teddy-bears that hang in some kitchens: “Envy means counting other people’s blessings. Contentment means counting your own.”
Ugh. That’s the sort of aphorism that makes me crabby. Apologies if any of mine has done the same to you!
Thanks, that’s helpful, though as a sampler I’d rather stitch “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” And here’s a slightly different take on how to be happy in one’s circumstances: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3036/jewish/Tevyes-Query.htm
I found it very helpful a while ago.
Thanks! – and for the link, too. (I liked the article’s reminder about the difference between God’s perspective and ours in terms of the apparent sizes of things.)