Envy Without Shame

A few days ago I did something stupid. I Googled the guy whose sidekick I was back in grad school. He’d basically been crowned king of the world, with fellowships, awards, and his very own bureau at a publication of record. Then, because I was on a roll, I did something even stupider. I visited the Facebook page of an ex-girlfriend. In each of her pictures, she wore an expression of witless animal enjoyment, the kind you only see on people who are heaped with life’s bonbons and intend to savor every one, smacking their lips like chimpanzees on rotten mangoes.

A good morning it was not.

According to Catholic teaching, envy, or grief over a neighbor’s well-earned good, is a mortal sin and a capital vice. As Pope Francis recently pointed out, it can drive otherwise gentle souls like Cain and Saul to commit murder (or at least to try). And yet, observes Joseph Epstein: “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” If he’s right, why does anyone bother? Wouldn’t it be easier all around simply to give in and lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im (or ‘er) that’s got it?

Easier said than done, warn psychologists Hill and Buss. In a study for UT Austin, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy,” these researchers argue that envy is an inevitable by-product of a system where individuals must compete for scarce resources, and where the success of one translates to the failure of others. “Given the nature of the evolutionary process,” they write, “the adaptive goal should not be to better oneself in general, but to be better than rivals with whom one is competing for access to the same resources in a given domain.” Because it’s such a jungle out there, “people’s feelings of success or failure at life’s pursuits are formed by comparing their own performances to those of others.” In this light, envy looks like self-loathing deflected 180 degrees.

Indeed, if nature really does grade on a curve, that might be a reasonable direction for it. Hill and Buss suggest that envy spurs people to filter out information irrelevant to the competitive task at hand, as well as to locate, store, and act on the relevant information. Envy, like the prospect of being hanged, according to Samuel Johnson, concentrates the mind. In some cases, it may even help people win, thus rendering itself obsolete.

But what if it doesn’t? What if, for all your filtering and focusing, you still finish second, or even last? How do you confront the fact that you are a loser; that you have proven yourself less deserving of fitness-relevant resources than your neighbor; that, in an actual jungle, you might well have been killed, maybe even eaten?

If envy really is what you feel toward the winners, you can start by owning it. This isn’t easy. As Epstein points out, not only is envy no fun, it’s downright embarrassing. On one hand, it brands you as “ungenerous,” “mean,” and “small-hearted.” On the other — and even worse — it makes your loserhood official. Far better for the dignity to say, “I didn’t want that old [you name the distinction] anyway. Best of luck, old sport.” If you are master enough of yourself to make that line stick, then by all means go for it and stop reading now.

But every time I’ve tried to smother envy, it’s crept right back out, often in grotesque disguise. In the past, one of these was an outsized admiration verging on awe for whoever excelled me. I’d always end up trying to undermine my heroes, which felt base even when I was only half aware I was doing it. The one time when (under the influence) I asserted my resentment openly (with a fist) and was knocked unconscious for my troubles, I woke up the next morning with a sense of relief at having gotten my just desserts. Well, that and a concussion.

For many furtively envious Catholics, a stronger temptation might involve befriending people who are so SOL that nobody could envy them in a million years. One woman I knew made herself into the very model of service, hopping from sickbed to hospice like the Easter bunny of death. Most of her charitable impulses were, I think, genuine, but every once in while she’d cackle over an embarrassing story featuring one of the objects of her ministry. She’d had a hard life, and I got the distinct impression she took comfort in knowing everyone else’s wasn’t one big conga line. Fine for her, but maybe less so for the unfortunates whose stories she was harvesting.

If we ignored near occasions of sexual sin, confessors everywhere would hear stories like these: “We decided to crash out on my bed — me in my boxers, her in panties and a halter top — and you’ll never guess what happened…” It seems strange, then, that so little effort has been made to isolate near occasions of envy. Social media might be one. If my moronic stunt alone doesn’t prove that, consider Craig Malkin’s study, which revealed that one respondent in three felt less satisfied with their own lives after spending time on Facebook. That’s probably one reason many younger people hate it.

Certain friendships can be one-way streets to Envyville. Maybe love — meaning caritas or philia — should conquer all, but it doesn’t always. In Bird by Bird, her advice manual for aspiring writers, Anne Lamott tells of a friend and fellow scribbler who’d just blown up and insisted on sharing every excruciating detail of her newfound fame and fortune in marathon phone conversations. Lamott, whose own career was sagging, eventually told her friend she’d heard enough, and would resume contact at some later point. Pretty? No. Perfectly congruent with Christian ideals of charity? Hardly. But if this friend was half as annoying as Lamott made her sound, “out of sight, out of mind” may have served to keep at least one of them out of the emergency room.

Of his own envious age, Kierkegaard wrote: “No person wishes to pull down the pre-eminent, but if at the same time pre-eminence could be demonstrated to be a fiction, then everyone would be happy.” Well, our news media explode the myths behind pre-eminent people 24/7, and still nobody’s happy. Me, I think we mediocrities would be better off handling them all — the pre-eminent and the media — like the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof handled the tsar: by imploring God to bless and keep them…far away from us.

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