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.

  • Ambaa

    I struggle a lot with envy. For me, I know that I don’t want to take good fortune away from others. I just want to have it too! But then even after I get something good, there’s always something else to want that someone else has.

    Also, Facebook makes me miserable and yet I can’t stop. It feeds all the worst parts of my envy, yet it’s addicting. I’ve been training myself to only check FB twice a day and no more!

  • Mom2Teens

    One thing I like about being older (good grief, I hope it’s not the only thing) is that one gains perspective. My most envious stage in life was when I was coping with years of infertility. That prompted an adventure into adoption and foster care. Now, decades later, with two grown children and two teens, I can look back and be really thankful for the years my husband and I were childless and became so close. That forged companionship helped us through our many challenges with both the adoption and foster care systems, as well as the challenges the children caught in them pose.

    Age also allows one to see that no one, and I mean no one, goes through life unscathed. We once lived in a condominium with neighbors who were millionaires. Once we got to know them, it was amazing to learn what they had been through in their lives — lost children, lost spouses, lost fortunes, criminal tragedies, mental illness — you name it. I often walked away thinking that they were welcome to their money if that was their consolation. I would thank God that I had not been forced to suffer like that.

    Facebook is a way to celebrate our friends’ and families’ good fortunes and share our own. It’s a way to laugh together, share interesting blog posts and funny memes. It’s a way to keep in touch with those we do not want to lose track of, or find those who we thought we had lost forever. Private messages are how we share our sorrows and ask for each other’s support and prayers. Perhaps the next time we read a facebook post and are stricken with envy, it would help to pray for our friends by thanking God for their blessings and asking for his comfort for their unknown sorrows.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I feel pity towards the winners. I’ve found something they can never have.

  • Magnificat

    Well, a “classical” envy is not so disturbing.
    I had a friend who used to socialize only with people with smaller blessings. The friendship was over in moment when you succeeded in any field she didn’t. Whether you married, earned a degree, got a salary larger than hers… Now she makes friends only with people who are incurably miserable.

  • Mike

    Excellent meditation. We got off FB because it got between us and our good friends but also because it started to make us feel inadequate. Every post was about a trip that someone had taken to some beautiful place or about how happy they were in their new job, or their new house that was awesome. It stopped reflecting reality and started shaping it. We haven’t been on it in 3 years but our relationships with friends are better for it.
    Envy hurts but without shame it can be cathartic. From time to time I’ve thought to myself he really is smarter than me, harder working, more confident more charming, and also more humble and charitable than I am and that there isn’t anyway I can do about it. (Ok maybe not all in one but you get drift) I met a guy like that once. He married my wife’s friend who had moved to Paris to be with him. They invited us over to their apartment off the Champs-E and took us out to dinner. Not only was this guy the son of a British Lord, intelligent, educated, an Exec. in his late 30s, tall, good looking, charming, but, as I found out over pints, he was also down to earth, humble, geniune and kinda dorky in the most endearing way. Oh and they have 2 beautiful kids and a dog and spend Augusts in the country! He was such a class act that you couldn’t feel bitter towards him. So, I agree, sometimes you just have to suck it up and tell yourself something like well at least he’s bald!

  • Y. A. Warren

    The near occasion of “sin” is one of the most damaging concepts the RCC ever came up with. Avoiding all areas that may challenge our own resolve is why “Christians’ are often accused of having the religion of creed, not deed. A young woman I know is fond of saying about the abilities of others, “That’s not my gift.” I’ll go with that whenever I see the abilities and accomplishments of others. I truly do have all that I need, and usually don’t want to pay the price for more.

  • Frank McManus

    What if a fellow you met in college has achieved the height of worldly success (by becoming a patheos blogger), while you yourself are naught but a lowly commenter? That’s my situation. (Damn you, Sam!)

    But seriously, envy really is self-loathing, which is in turn a form of pride. I’ve spent most of life envious, angry, and resentful. But recently I’ve discovered that my misfortunes are God’s greatest gifts to me; they’ve revealed starkly the fundamental falseness of the person I always believed myself to be. Strange but true. Doesn’t mean I don’t have bouts of hard-heartedness, but I think I’ve finally discovered that’s it’s possible to live happily in the real world — i.e., in the presence of divine love — and that seems to be the only thing worth working on in the final analysis.

    If I’d achieved Sam’s exalted position, I’m not certain I would ever have been able to see that this is the case.

    My advice is to learn how to revel in one’s mediocrity, failures, and the shame that others see us, or might see us, as mediocrities or losers. That’s the path to sanctity for assholes like us.

  • parterre

    Hmm. I suppose using the “near occasion of sin” reason can be overdone. In general, I just think of it as being smart enough to avoid temptation. Or not putting yourself in harm’s way. I suspect that a lot of people who have “envy” just feel like they want the stuff that that other has. Not necessarily feeling grief that they don’t have that stuff as well.

  • Y. A. Warren

    There seems to be miles of difference between fleeting feelings of envy over things we often truly don’t desire and what is referred to as “coveting,” which seems to refer to obsessive attraction.