The Common Good

Envy: Greed's Ugly Cousin

I drive a Prius. I wouldn't exactly say it's a sexy car; the word "practical" comes to mind. It gets good mileage, is safe, and fits our family of four just fine in most cases. It's gotten its share of bings and dents over the years, but it has been a very reliable and low maintenance way to get around town.

Envy concept, stockphoto-graf / Shutterstock.com
Envy concept, stockphoto-graf / Shutterstock.com

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Of course, what I really want is a Tesla. My son wants one too. There is a showcase for them in a local storefront, and he begs me to go by for a visit every time we are nearby. Though he is only 10, he already makes a pretty strong case to my wife, explaining how much of the cost of the car will be offset by the savings in gas, and he was elated to find out it was recently rated the safest car on the road.

So far it hasn't worked in our favor. But we keep trying.

This, of course, is not envy; it is simply good old-fashioned greed. The thing I have is sufficient, only until something newer, edgier, shinier comes along (which, in America, is a daily occurrence). Then suddenly, perfectly good car in our driveway has shortcomings and liabilities that were, hereto for, invisible to us.

Envy is different, and I would argue that it actually is worse than greed. While the latter is simply our desire off of its proverbial chain, envy gets personal. It is the easy but unattractive marriage of greed and judgment. Yes, we desire what someone else has, but there is more to it. When we are envious, we gain nearly as much pleasure from the idea of the other person not having the thing we want as we do from the idea of having it ourselves.

When I was first starting school, I was overflowing with excitement to take my Superman lunchbox to school. It was the holy grail of lunchboxes, I was sure, and I couldn’t wait to show it off. Then I got to school and saw my “friend” with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Box. It was, in a word, awesome. It was better than mine, though I didn’t realize it was possible.

And suddenly, I hated my friend. I wanted to take his stupid lunchbox and throw it in the garbage. How dare he make my new lunchbox suddenly seem worthless? How dare he have something better than I had? Clearly, I deserved the better box, not him. I could feel the hot, prickly tingles, creeping up the back of my neck as I seethed in silence.

As if his lunchbox had a single thing to do with me.

In his book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Renee Girard offers the following thought on envy, which I promptly quoted in my forthcoming book, postChristian after envying him for coming up with the idea instead of me:

“…we envy first the one who possesses the object (this last one having finally a minor importance). And, in certain cases, we would feel more satisfaction in the fact than the Other does not possess the object, rather than to have it ourselves. Publicity, this hymn to the possession of objects, gives us to desire, not a product in its objective qualities but some people, Others, who desire this product or who seem gratified with its possession.”

Envy, therefore, is the seed of a personal narrative we weave for ourselves to justify any number of horrible things. They don’t deserve it, but we do. It’s only right that the object of our desire be transferred to someone who would truly appreciate it, who would but it to its best use. We’re more deserving, more capable, and, well … that person who has it now is just a jerk.

Something like that, anyway.

So what is the antidote to envy? First, of course, we have to content with our desire at it source. We have to dispel the personal myth we too often embrace that suggests, once we possess enough things, or at least the right things (or have the right job, wife, degree, what have you) then we’ll be happy. But we won’t it’s a big, fat lie.

Theologian Peter Rollins suggests that the key to putting desire in its proper place in our lives, is to accept that we’ll never be entirely satisfied, and that life isn’t ultimately about being happy. Nothing in this life with wholly and forever slake the thirst for more. Our only option then, according to Rollins, is to make peace with the “gap” within us and practice coming to terms with the reality that nothing can or will ever entirely fill it.

Second, we have to practice compassion. And this is far more challenging and complicated than simply choosing to be nice. After all, I was nice to my friend with the Ninja Turtles Lunch box, even if inside my own head, I wanted to choke him.

Compassion requires us to allow our minds and hearts to leave our bodies, and to rest in the reality of another. The only way to do this in any meaningful way is first to deal with the shackles we willingly place on ourselves by succumbing to our own desire. It’s not about you, says compassion. Get over yourself. See through the eyes of another. Come to know their heart as well as you know your own.

When true compassion takes root, the divisions of other-ness, which afford us the necessary distance to justify violent thoughts and actions, fade away. There is no more “I” and “other;” there is only “us.”

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Envy concept, stockphoto-graf / Shutterstock.com

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