New Years Resolution Time!
As usual, I've got a few. I might share others down the road, but the one I want to discuss today is envy. I'm swearing it off again. Yes - again. Attached below is a post I wrote in 2009, which was the last time I gave this subject serious consideration. At the time, I wanted two things very badly, and it was causing me considerable angst, sucking up my concentration and leaving me with a restless, edgy malcontent that wasn't much fun for me or anyone around me.
Interestingly, I eventually got both those things - after a fashion. Nothing we long for ever turns out to be exactly what we expect, does it? - and I suppose there's a lesson there for another day.
I am one of the most determined and relentless people I've ever met, so my argument against envy doesn't have anything to do with futility. I truly believe we can have almost anything we truly want - which makes it very important to choose wisely.
The list of things I want on the cusp of the new year looks a little different than my four-years-ago list. The big things don't change (my children's happiness, satisfying work and enough money to live on, time with my friends) but the sparkly treasures which beckon on the other side of the fence do. I think I have extraordinary taste - it's not sports cars or granite countertops or collagen injections that I covet - but unfortunately, even the most gorgeously-spun daydreams don't justify rearranging the universe.
I think it's important to let God/Fate/whatever have His/its hand in the unveiling, too. So I humbly pledge to try to give up the clamoring and demanding and grasping, and allow the pebbles to roll down the hill on their own. There's bound to be a pretty one in there somewhere.
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There have been only two times in my life when I’ve really struggled with envy. Or more precisely, with wanting what I couldn’t have.
The first was during my teen years. I wanted just about everything that other people had. Specifically, I wanted larger breasts, and to be shorter. I coveted other girls’ clothes, boyfriends, Bonne Belle lip gloss, and so on. Aristotle calls envy “pain at the good fortune of others,” and as I looked around at my peers, every flawless complexion, every new pair of wood-platform Bare Traps, every fresh-minted couple making out outside the band room seemed conjured specifically for my torment.
Time passed. I left my central-Missouri town, that hotbed of unrequited longing, and as I made my way in the world, enough of my cards came up aces that I enjoyed a few decades of relative serenity with my lot. I certainly reaped a bigger haul of life’s bounty than I ever anticipated, at least when it came to material stuff. And I also figured out the very valuable lesson that about 95% of what we end up with is in our control. In a general sense, I figured out what I wanted and set out to get it, and tried to remember to be grateful.
Now I’ve bumped up against the demon again. There are two things I want badly and I can’t figure out how to get my hands on them.
In the first case, I might well be able to have the thing, but there’s a ramp-up that I’d rather skip over, a worthiness I haven’t worked hard enough to develop. I want this thing now, perseverance and temperance be damned.
In the second case, I have no justification for my desires at all. This thing belongs to someone else and there’s no case to be made that I deserve it. I didn’t do anything to earn it. And I can’t have it. Period.
And that knowledge burns. Oh, it burns. Author Joseph Epstein writes: “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” Did he ever hit that nail on the head: go out and commit a little gluttony, lust, or greed, and at least you’ll have some good memories while you’re doing penance.
But envy? It feels like shit. There’s that hollow-gut emptiness, that giddy–with-no-outlet frustration, layered liberally with shame, because, come on, it’s not very nice to want to play with other people’s toys. (Remember how repugnant Woody Allen’s “the heart wants what it wants” justification was?)
The traditional punishment for envy, when one arrives in Hell to do one’s time, is submersion in freezing water. In Dante's Purgatory, envy-ers get their eyes sewn shut with wire. Neither sounds like much fun, but truly, living with envy is its own punishment – it’s the only sin to come with a handy boil-in bag. If you believe in a vindictive God, you probably hear Him laughing as you writhe with envy.
I know of only one cure for envy: time. Eventually you’ll either want something else even more (probably not a sign of karmic improvement) or you’ll rise above, immersing yourself in rewarding philanthropy or a consuming hobby, or become a Buddhist or something.
Neither, unfortunately, holds the least appeal for me at the moment. I prefer to just sit here and suffer.
Shakespeare is credited with the “green-eyed monster” phrase, though technically he was speaking of jealousy. (Our linguistic sloppiness has mired the two concepts in hopeless confusion, but jealousy is usually a 3-person deal where envy concerns 2 people plus a thing.)