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A Study in the Pathology of Envy




I: — Every winter people injure themselves — some seriously and a few fatally — through slipping on ice. They are most likely to slip when they don’t see the ice and are unable to safeguard themselves in any way. The ice has been covered over by the thinnest layer of snow or by a discarded newspaper. Before they know it their feet are gone from underneath them, and they lie immobile, wondering if the pain in the elbow or shoulder or wrist betokens a broken bone. If they have struck the back of their head they may be beyond wondering anything, at least for a while. Having one’s feet slip unexpectedly is no small matter.

What happens with our feet around ice happens to our self, our total person, around life. We slip and fall; fall dangerously, fall painfully, even fall catastrophically. Having slipped we have to ascertain how much damage has been done to us and how long recovery will take.

The psalmist tells us he came within an eyelash of having his feet slip catastrophically — when? when envy invaded his heart.   “My steps had well nigh slipped.  For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Envy is a sin which threatens us all and of which we are all ashamed. Nobody boasts of being envious. People do boast of their sin, to be sure, but not the sin of envy.  Some people (chiefly males) boast of their lust.  They think that advertising their lasciviousness exalts them as a red-blooded “stud”. Some people boast of their hair-trigger temper.         They think that advertising their rage exalts them as a no-nonsense type that doesn’t take any “guff” from anyone, someone to be feared. But no one boasts of her envy. Envy is always sly. Envy is always disguised. Envy is always denied outwardly, however much it consumes us inwardly.

Envy is subtle, isn’t it.  Have you ever noticed the extent to which envy is disguised as social justice? For years I have noticed that what is put forward as concern for the poor is frequently envy of the rich. What is put forward as the attempt at lifting up many is secretly the attempt at pulling down a few.

Needless to say, not even pulling down a few satisfies our envy, simply because envy can never be satisfied; the more envy is fed the more its satisfaction recedes.

Why are people envious? We envy inasmuch as we assume that anything anyone else has we too must have. Likely we never even wanted the thing that someone else has until we noticed that he has it.  Suddenly the fact that he has it and we don’t have it is intolerable.

We are envious for another reason.  We refuse to admit that there are people who genuinely have greater talent or intelligence or skill than we have.  We think that to acknowledge someone else as more talented or intelligent or able is to declare ourselves failures (when of course it is to declare no such thing).

While none of us needs any encouragement to envy we are incited nonetheless on all sides. Think of the advertising that is beamed into us every day.  So much advertising aims at fostering in us a desire for what someone else has. Did she not have it, or did we not know that she has it, we shouldn’t want it for ourselves. (I am not speaking here of genuine human need but rather of artificially induced want.) We are pressured from all directions to want what we don’t need, and pressured to want it simply because someone else has it.   The pressure is effective in that the pressure presses upon us the message that unless we have it too we shall remain sunk in inferiority. What we want we soon expect. When expectation is not fulfilled want is riddled with anger and resentment; want, anger and resentment blended together appear as envy.

For this reason the most tragic aspect of envy is the poison it injects into friendships. Envy swells in us concerning those people whom we consider equals.  No one of our social class envies Queen Elizabeth, even though she is the richest woman in the world.  Instead we envy our friend, our dear, dear friend, whose job pays him $15,000 per year more than we earn.  Suddenly he appears less dear. In fact he now displays character-defects which either he didn’t display before or we didn’t see before. Actually, of course, it is not the case that he has recently come to display them or we have come to see them.  It is the case that we have recently come to imagine them; imagine them and even project them. All the while we remain unaware of what is going on in our own head and heart.         For what is going on is this: as soon as we imagine character-defects in our friend it is plain that his good fortune has left us feeling belittled.  He never intended to belittle us; and in fact his $15,000 per year hasn’t belittled us. Nonetheless we are certain now that he is belittling us, as certain as we are that the sun rises in the east. Feeling ourselves belittled we stupidly think — yet nonetheless wickedly think — that we can restore ourselves to our proper size, our proper largeness, only by diminishing him.  Envy is always bent on leveling.  End of friendship.

Yet as surely as our envy poisons our friendship envy poisons us ourselves.   Since envy renders us forever uncontented it renders us unable to rejoice.  Envy renders us dejected. More to the point, since our envy of someone else who has what we lack causes us to think ourselves losers, envy finds us languishing in self-rejection. Worse yet, since envy renders us sour, the more other people try to love us out of our envy the more we curdle their every effort.

“My feet had almost stumbled”, cries the psalmist, “I nearly fractured both legs, plus spine and skull; I nearly rendered myself immobile and insane when I became envious of the prosperous, for I looked upon the prosperous as arrogant and wicked.” It may be that the prosperous are arrogant — at least some of them.  It may be that the prosperous are wicked — at least some of them. It may also be that the prosperous are no more arrogant or wicked than anyone else.  At this point the psalmist’s envy has rendered him ridiculous.  For the prosperous people, the psalmist says, “have no pangs”. The prosperous have no pangs? They don’t suffer? They aren’t as finite, frail and fragile as the non-prosperous?  Ridiculous. To be sure we like to think that the prosperous “have it made”.  We like to think that because they “have it made” nothing about them can ever be unmade.  They can never suffer misfortune of any kind.  Because they are protected against financial loss we assume they are impervious to human loss. Their lives are devoid of difficulty, every bit as trouble-free as we foolishly imagine them to be. “Always at ease”, the psalmist says of them, “they increase in riches.” They may be increasing in riches. But are they “always at ease”?  Think of the Kennedy family of U.S.A. fame. Corrupt?   The old man, Joseph Kennedy, made millions handling liquor during the era of prohibition. Was the family wicked? The extramarital affairs which sons John and Robert had, not to mention their simultaneous affair with Marilyn Monroe, scarcely describe them as virtuous. Then has the family had no pangs? Has the family been always at ease? Two sons assassinated, Ted Kennedy’s wife an alcoholic, a grandson who is a drug-abuser, another family-member charged with rape.

And even if, in another case, there is no moral failure attached to someone who is prosperous, it still isn’t true that the prosperous are pang-free. John Robarts, lawyer, former premier of Ontario, suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed, and in his despair he shot himself.

Envy blinds us. Insofar as we envy someone else we blind ourselves to that person’s suffering.  We assume that whatever it is about him that is enviable has rendered him invulnerable, pain-free, impervious to suffering, 100% affliction-proof. But of course the prosperity of the prosperous cannot protect them against the human condition.

Envy poisons; envy embitters; envy blinds.  It does even more; it renders us self-pitying, self-righteous snivellers. “All in vain have I kept my heart clean”, the psalmist whines in his envy, “I have kept my heart clean and I received nothing for it!”   The truth is, he hasn’t kept his heart clean.  He may have kept his hands clean; i.e., he hasn’t done anything wrong. But his heart? How can he pretend to have kept it clean when he envies those whose prosperity (he says) has filled them with despicable character-defects?  Insofar as he envies them he is plainly willing to become a despicable character himself as long as he gets rich at the same time.  He hasn’t kept his heart clean!         But he has rendered himself a self-pitying, self-righteous whiner.

It is little wonder that no one boasts of envy.  Who would brag that he has turned himself into a poisonous, embittered, blind, self-righteous whiner?  Not even the psalmist is going to boast.


II: — What happens to him next? In a rare moment of rationality and self-perception he realizes how grotesquely he has disfigured himself.  In the same rare moment of rationality and self-perception he realizes too how shabby he appears to his fellow-believers, his congregation. “I should be untrue to the generation of thy children”, he cries to God.  The New English Bible puts it most succinctly: “Had I let myself talk on in this fashion I should have betrayed the family of God”. Plainly, the light is dawning; finally the light is dawning.

But still he needs more than the dawn; he needs broad daylight in order to get himself straightened around.         Broad daylight floods him when he goes to church.  “I went into the sanctuary of God”, he tells us.  He worshipped. To worship is to adore someone infinitely greater than we.  To worship, therefore, is to have our sights raised above ourselves. To worship is to be oriented away from ourselves.  Just because we are as envy-prone as we are, as self-preoccupied as we are, we need to be re-oriented again and again, at least every seven days (the bare minimum).

Few spectacles delight me more than air-shows.  Aerobatics entrance me. The formation-flying of the Snow Birds or the Blue Angels is good, but I prefer the solo performances of the smaller, propeller-powered aircraft.  These small planes perform far tighter manoeuvres, and perform them much closer to the ground. Recently I saw an aerobatics display on television which included much film-footage of the pilot. The pilot had been photographed by a camera positioned at the front of the cockpit. As the plane rolled and twisted and flipped upside down (many of these manoeuvres were quite violent) I noticed that the pilot was looking for the ground every two seconds. The pilot was constantly re-orienting himself. Because his manoeuvres were so extreme and so sudden, he could easily lose his bearings; and because he was so close to the ground, he had no margin of error. He re-oriented himself — “Where’s the ground?” — at least every two seconds; otherwise he would crash.

In the course of everything that comes upon us, including that insane envy which all of us know but will not admit, we too roll and twist and flip upside down. The only way we can keep from crashing — “My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had well nigh slipped” — is to re-orient ourselves constantly. And we re-orient ourselves constantly by looking for that groundedness which is God.  To re-acquaint ourselves with that groundedness which is God is to avoid the crash. Worship is essential for this; if not every two seconds then at least once every week.

As the psalmist goes to church, as he worships, he gets his bearings once more. As he gets his bearings once more that rare moment of rationality and self-perception which got him to church and got him his bearings asserts itself and extends itself and gradually dispels the envy and the spinoffs of envy which had so recently laid hold of him.         As all of this is dispelled, as he returns to his right mind, he can scarcely believe how absurd he had become and how seriously he had warped himself. “I was stupid and ignorant”, he cries to God, “I was like a beast toward thee.” “Not only was I asinine”, he tells us frankly, “I was even outrageously insensitive to God; and for the longest time I couldn’t even see it!” As his envy evaporates his self-perception returns.  He knows he has been on the edge of catastrophe himself; he has come within an eyelash of betraying his fellow-believers, and he has affronted God.


How thorough the psalmist’s re-orientation is is given by his exclamation, “Whom have I in heaven but thee?         And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.”  Martin Luther’s translation is priceless: “As long as I have thee, I wish for nothing else in heaven or on earth.”  As the psalmist’s life sinks more deeply into God’s life; as God’s life sinks more deeply into the psalmist’s, the vastness of God floods the psalmist again and dilutes his envy until it vanishes without trace. “As long as I have thee, I wish for nothing else in heaven or on earth.”

Someone might wish to say that the cure for envy is to want less.  Of course to want less is to do away with envy.         But to say this is as unhelpful as to say that the cure for sickness is to be without disease. The critical question, however, is, “How do we come to be without disease?” How do we come to want less? By repeating one hundred times per day, “I resolve to want less!”? Repeating this one hundred times per day will only remind us of all that we don’t have and leave us wanting more! We cease wanting more by forgetting the “more” that we don’t have. And we forget it as we become preoccupied with him who himself is “more”; so much more, in fact, that to be possessed of him is to see the world’s trifles as just that: trifles which feed our acquisitiveness and vanity but never satisfy them.

“God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever”, says the psalmist at the end of his 73rd tract.  One thousand years later another son of Israel, born in the city of Tarsus and soon to die in the city of Rome, wrote, “For me to live is Christ; and to die can only mean more of him, for ever”.

Psalm 73 is a study in the pathology of envy, as well as a declaration of deliverance from the fatal condition.         While we have allowed the psalmist to tell us much today, however, we are going to let someone else have the last word.         The writer of the book of Proverbs says, “Contentment is a feast without end.” (Prov. 15:15 Jewish Publication Society)


                                                                                                    Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                     

November 2002