The Common Good

Envy: Beware the Green-Eyed Monster

“Don’t let the green-eyed monster get you.”

Green-eyed monster, Ralwel / Shutterstock.com
Green-eyed monster, Ralwel / Shutterstock.com

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I heard this phrase quite a bit when I was growing up. It seemed to be one of my parents’ favorite responses when my siblings or I complained about a new toy that a friend received but we didn’t have, moped about an honor given to a classmate that we felt we should have been given, or even when we pointed out an unfair amount of attention bestowed on another sibling. It was their way of saying, “don’t be envious of what another person possesses.”

After hearing this phrase many times when I was growing up, I’ve become rather curious about its origin. It turns out that we have the Bard himself to thank for the “green-eyed monster.” William Shakespeare first used this expression in Othello, and again in The Merchant of Venice.

Actually, as I recently learned, he was really talking about jealousy. Jealousy and envy differ in that jealousy is the fear that arises when you lose or are afraid of losing something or someone you think is yours; while envy is the resentment caused by another person having something that you do not have, but want. (Think Toy Story for jealousy and Snow White for envy.) But the phrase “green-eyed monster” is often used for both these emotions, and in fact jealousy and envy are almost synonymous in our culture — even though they’re very different things!

This gives me pause. I am certainly guilty of using these words interchangeably, mostly because I haven’t given much thought to the linguistic differences between the two (or maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in English class). Many people would say that it doesn’t make a difference if I mistakenly say, “I’m jealous of those socks you’re wearing,” or “I’m envious of the way you spend so much time with my best friend.”

However, I think it makes a profound difference, especially when you consider the recipient of the jealousy or envy. Jealousy is always directed at a person (to use a biblical example, Joseph’s brothers are jealous of Joseph because he receives the most attention from Jacob), whereas envy is always directed at an object or thing (Joseph’s brothers are envious of his multi-colored coat because it’s a sign of Jacob’s love for him).

I think what lies at the heart of the mix-up between jealousy and envy is not only the result of many of us zoning out during English class, but may also be a consequence of the way our culture objectifies people. An easy example of cultural objectification is the way women are often portrayed in movies, TV shows, ads, and other forms of media. Women are often the passive recipients of a man’s sexual desire, a designer’s clothing, or a corporation’s product. The message communicated through these portrayals is that women are not people who have dignity, but are objects waiting, and wanting, to be used. Other examples of objectification are bountiful and are sadly all too common in our world.

The objectification of another human being runs directly counter to the Gospel message. By virtue of the fact that all people are created by God — and even made in God’s image, as we are told in Genesis 1:27 — all humans possess a God-given dignity that should not be overlooked. This dignity includes being seen as a unique person with whom a relationship can be nurtured, the ability to lead and contribute to a community, and just being valued and loved for the very fact that the person is God’s creation.

Our words make a big difference in ensuring that this dignity is recognized. Remember the story of Mary and Martha? I’ll put myself in Martha’s shoes to illustrate my point. Intentionally or not, if I say, “I’m envious of Mary because she gets to sit at Jesus’ feet and receive his attention while I have to work in the kitchen to prepare the meal,” this implicitly turns Mary into an object. Mary, the object, becomes a passive recipient of Jesus’ attention, instead of being a living human being who is engaged in a relationship.

So, where does that leave us with jealousy and envy? While both can be considered sins in their own right, only one is part of the canon of the Seven Deadly Sins. I believe envy has this distinct honor because it involves the desire to take something that is not yours or, in the case of this mix-up between jealousy and envy, objectify a person. Jealousy has the potential to be sinful, but isn’t inherently so. Jealousy can lead to resentment and the destruction of a relationship, but it can also be a powerful indicator of the importance of the relationship. In fact, the first commandment tells us that even God is jealous for the worship and devotion of God’s people!

I think we need to be careful in how we characterize envy and jealousy. As part of our Lenten fast, perhaps we can pay greater attention to the power and use of words — how they help or harm, create or destroy, form or warp. “Beware the green-eyed monster;” or at least let him be jealous. Leave the envy.

Katie Chatelaine-Samsen is Director of Individual Giving for Sojourners.

Image: Green-eyed monster, Ralwel / Shutterstock.com

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