“In America, happiness is making $10 more a week than your brother-in-law.”
My son-in law, Jeff recently got a new computer. This, of course, means that I now have to upgrade mine. Regardless of expense, or the features that I might actually need, my mantra when it comes to such things is simply that it must be “Better than Jeff’s” (BTJ). I don’t really care what I get, or how it works, just so long as it is BTJ.
Such competitive envy is sometimes considered to be the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. It’s certainly the most pervasive. In his 2003 book entitled Envy, former editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, explains that sins like anger, sloth, gluttony, pride, and lust usually have at least some modicum of pleasure attached to them, but envy is entirely “mean-spirited” and almost always has malice behind it. When it spins out of control, it leads to other antisocial behavior, such as theft, fraud, and even murder. In Genesis, Cain’s murder of Abel is secondary to his original sin of intolerable envy.
My wife Diane claims that I’m quite the jealous person. For example, if she orders something at a restaurant that looks good, I automatically covet it. If she buys a new book, I want a new book. Actually this is envy, rather than jealousy, because in such cases I want another person’s possessions. Jealousy is when you already have something, but are distressed about the possibility of losing it to a rival. Envy involves two people and is accompanied by feelings of inferiority, longing, and resentment, while jealousy typically involves three people, and is characterized by distrust, anxiety, and anger.
I would point out this distinction to Diane, but I’m not sure she would appreciate it and might conclude, as Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut put it, that I’m “ somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut.” In the larger sense, Diane is still technically correct, since I’m often jealous, as well as envious, a rather dubious distinction.
In many respects contemporary culture cultivates envy. Epstein has written that the American advertising industry is a “vast and intricate envy-creating machine.” The 1980s “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” advertising campaign by Pantene, is perhaps the most overt example of envy-based advertising, Modern marketing aims at convincing people to compare their situation with that of others, opening wide the door to envy.
Children cannot take on other’s viewpoints and have a very difficult time developing the ability to share gracefully. I remember one Christmas when our youngest granddaughter received a fabulous pink play castle, which irked her older sister to no end. When they moved the castle from under the Christmas tree to the younger girl’s bedroom, our oldest granddaughter could be heard walking around the house muttering, in an exasperated fashion, “I don’t see a castle in my bedroom!”
The German philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “Because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy.” Frequently we tend to be so envious, we can hardly bear the pleasure of others. People are often willing to sacrifice a great deal, rather than see someone else gain even a little. A Russian folktale describes how God appeared to Ivan and told him that he would grant him anything he wished. However, there was one catch, whatever he did for Ivan, he would do double for Ivan’s despised neighbor and rival, Vladimir. Ivan brooded over this and finally asked God to put out one of his eyes.
Those tabloid newspapers at the grocery checkout, that emphasize the travails of celebrities, allow us to make favorable comparisons with the beautiful people, so that we appear to be doing better than them, in at least in some areas of life. Epstein says we should call such publications, The National Schadenfreude, after the German word for taking pleasure in the pain of others.
Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., author of I’d Change My Life If I Had More Time says, “When you realize you are capable of achieving what the other person has, envy can motivate. Envy can be either a tool for destruction or a great gift.” The Greek philosopher Aristotle described what he called “emulative envy”, which drives us to imitate the noble, the good, and the just in other people.
Envy strikes those aspects of our lives, in which we feel most challenged and those that are most important to us. Competition and pride are key factors. Freud wrote that envy is essentially a “narcissistic wound”— a major threat to our self-esteem.
Envy is also bound up with the childish notion that things always have to be fair. At Diane’s recent birthday celebration, that included four young grandchildren, there was nonstop squabbling and complaining about the size of the pieces of birthday cake. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s fair that children should always get the biggest pieces. To reduce the likelihood of envy among siblings, parents often go to great pains to try to keep everything equal. Back in Florida Diane did groups with emotionally handicapped children in public schools. When she used snacks for rewards, she was always extremely careful to assure that each treat bag contain exactly the same amount, because even a single microgram difference had the potential to set off a major incident.
Novelist Bonita Friedman has called envy, ‘the writer’s disease’. When writers read anything good, they invariably think, “What’s the big deal, I could have done that myself.”, sort of the way your dog looks at you, when you’re driving the car. Friedman bravely admits to going into bookstores and immediately flipping to the back of best sellers, just to compare ages with the author. Some people read obituaries just to make similar comparisons. I’m reaching that age when you start thinking about how nice it would be to outlive, rather than out-achieve your rivals, since that seems easier.
Once I was looking at books at a supermarket and sudenly there was a picture of someone I knew. As if this wasn’t bad enough, several months later I saw her on a television show. All this left me muttering, “Where the heck is the castle in my room?”