The Taming of Envy Begins with God

The Taming of Envy Begins with God August 15, 2011

The speaker in Shakespeare’s nineteenth sonnet, having fallen on hard times, sums it up well:

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least . . .

Shakespeare doesn’t use the word, but we know what afflicts his speaker: envy. Whatever slings and arrows this man has taken, they make him gaze longingly on the gifts of contemporaries and yearn bitterly for their possession.

This wretched condition is one of our common plagues. Situated among peers who have more or look better, we cannot fail to compare and to brood over the differences. But this comparing, as Matthew Levering points out in his The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins that Sabotage Divine Love, need not destroy us. As Levering discusses in Chapter 4 of his new book, there is a treatment. (Visit the Patheos Book Club on The Betrayal of Charity here.)

I am, I should make clear upfront, not a professor or a theologian. I am what I call an “informed believer,” but one entrusted with imparting the content of faith – faith as understood in the Roman Catholic tradition – to young men and women in high school. I am also a lawyer.  It is in these dual capacities that I’ve been especially edified by Levering’s chapter on envy.

The first great virtue, so to speak, of Levering’s discussion is the chapter’s title, “Envy and God-Reliance,” as it directs the reader to one of his overarching themes: whatever we say about envy, or whatever medicine we prescribe as a cure, we must accept that it’s not primarily about us. It’s not about what “I” can do to overcome it. The taming of envy begins with God.

Thus, Levering can immediately discard what may be the severest temptation for the Facebook generation, the advice given by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Envy, Emerson famously said, is ignorance. It results from unseemly honoring of others. Turn inward, says Emerson, and let your envy fall upon yourself. Be your own god.

Drawing upon Aristotle and Aquinas, Levering finds Emerson’s a deficient remedy. He rightly raises the question: what happens when our inward turn leaves us, as it inevitably will, disappointed? What happens when our gestures of self-empowerment aren’t good enough? “We soon find,” says Levering, “that we cannot attain to the status we think we should attain and that we see in others around us.” Consequently, the car, the house, or the acclaim of another once again shackles our imaginations. We stew.

The way out is, quite simply, God. Or, more precisely, it involves understanding that we are creatures, fundamentally derivative beings whose source and end remain in a Creator.

Thus, our desire for temporal goods, though not in itself evil, must be set against the horizon of an eternal destiny. What seems best in a world of bill-paying and traffic jams may, in light of our eternal good, dissolve as insignificant. In other words, we might be fortunate not to have won the lottery or to have won great fame because however great those conditions seem, they may, in the end, imperil our souls.

Levering also asks us to recall that we aren’t owed anything. “In a real sense,” Levering says while explicating Aquinas, “no one is deserving at all; all good is God’s gift and we must rejoice in it as such.” Instead of desponding over what we lack, we might spend more time dwelling in gratitude on what we already have. The distribution of goods, moreover, is not a competition. Levering explains: “To sorrow enviously about others’ goods is to turn away from the gifting God and to worship instead a parsimonious god whose gifts are scarce and zero-sum, whose gifts need to be jealously hoarded.” This “god of scarcity” (Levering’s phrase), a god fashioned in our own likeness, is not one we can approach in love or friendship.

The call to an eternal destiny, the great goods we already possess, the inexhaustible treasures of a loving Creator: these are themes we ought to add to our coffee as we start the day. While the goods and successes of those we live and work with have always inflamed our envy, the internet makes us more vulnerable to this destructive thinking. Social networking sites (to take just one example) provide almost real-time data on what people say, do, or accomplish; and as we watch our friends take in mohitos in Hawaii or show off every curve of their new car, we find ourselves ever more inclined to wonder why we aren’t in Hawaii or why we haven’t bought a new car.

So let us take the advice offered in Levering’s excellent work and, of course, add in the wisdom of Shakespeare. Near the end of Sonnet 19, you will recall, the speaker suddenly returns to good cheer because of the thought of his beloved. If we think of the beloved not as a human but as God, we have something deeply edifying in the sonnet’s closing couplet:

“For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Matt Emerson is a graduate of Saint Louis University and the Notre Dame Law School. He teaches Theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. and writes a regular column at Patheos, After Manresa.

For more about The Betrayal of Charity, visit the Patheos Book Club here.

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