Of The Deadly Sins, Only Envy Is No Fun At All
Envy is the pain caused by the desire for the advantage of others, such as superior quality, achievement, or possession. We desire those qualities for ourselves, or we wish that other people lack them. Our strong desire can set off a painful overwhelming emotion seeded deep within us. Therefore, envy is nasty, miserly, and perhaps the most shameful of the deadly sins.
“As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy.” – Antisthenes
We hardly ever confess our envy to anyone, not to family, not to friends, not to even ourselves. Envy is such a carefully guarded secret, that it can annoy the hell out of ourselves and someone else when unravelling it.
Envy Is Not Jealousy
Envy is often confused with jealousy. If envy is the pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others, jealousy is the pain caused by the fear of losing our advantages to others. The confusion lies in the fact that envy accompanies jealousy very often.
A very common situation would be: You’re feeling jealous because you saw your girlfriend talking and smiling with an attractive guy.
So, you’re feeling jealous because you’re reacting to the threat of losing your girlfriend. Also, you’re feeling envious because you’re reacting to something you lack, which in this case might be a certain characteristic. Furthermore, envy doesn’t hold a sense of betrayal and does neither result in an outrage. And jealousy doesn’t hold a sense of inferiority if the threat is not desirable, which isn’t per se in a romantic setting, but can also extend to such things as friendship or reputation.
We direct our envy to others, especially with whom we compare ourselves with. It can be anyone and especially who we deem as equals, even family members. In this age of mass social media, comparing ourselves to anyone and everyone has become encouragingly easier, adding more oil to the fire of our envy by emphasizing the material and tangible over the imperceptible and spiritual.
However, our source or envious pain is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration caused by the lack we see in ourselves. The awful distraction of envy paradoxically holds us back from achieving our fullest potential, because what consumes our minds, controls our lives.
The Cost Of Envy
When we’re consumed by envy, it will eventually cost us the people who we hold dear. Not just them, but also our attitude, goals, and values. In some cases, it can even lead to sabotaging our own success and others with it.
As time passes, our pain and bitterness increases. This can lead to physical health problems such as infections, heart diseases, and cancers. Also, mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Yes, we are literally consumed by envy.
Envy can further lead to defensive reactions such as ungratefulness, mockery, disrespect, arrogance, and narcissism, which all share the use of contempt to diminish the existential threat posed by the advantages of others.
Our Pleasure In Others Misfortune
Yet carefully disguised, envy is often exposed through indirect expressions. This brings us to Schadenfreude, which literally means ‘harm-joy’ in German. Schadenfreude can be defined as pleasure at the misfortune of others. When someone suffers from misfortune, we might think they brought it on themselves. However, we can’t help thinking, “Luckily, it’s not us.”
In both envy and schadenfreude, we can become targets of another’s indirect expressions. In one, it is provoked by our good fortune. In the other, it is provoked by our misfortune. But usually, we did nothing to create either response. We deserve neither praise nor blame. They are unconscious by-products of living our lives. Together they form a continuous uproar of inner commentary on our interactions with others.
“We are all the judges and the judged, victims of the casual malice and fantasy of others, and ready sources of fantasy and malice in our turn. And if we are sometimes accused of sins of which we are innocent, are there not also other sins of which we are guilty and of which the world knows nothing?” – Iris Murdoch
Both envy and schadenfreude create emotional dilemmas for us, reflecting badly on ourselves if we allow them to show. As they are socially disapproved, schadenfreude is slightly more acceptable if we can agree that the misfortune was self-inflicted. Our pleasure is masked, and we can all join in pointing our fingers at the victim. With envy, it’s best to remain silent, as it is almost impossible to get people to own up to it.
Controlling Our Envy
Envy is a question of attitude. By reacting with envy, we stop learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and so we chase ourselves to inaction. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught through learning and put on our effort to match or surpass someone. Emulation enables us to grow and to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have provoked our envy.
Also, we envy because we are blind to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording it, to say nothing of the many risks and inconveniences of driving such a car.
“Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.” – Charles Bukowski
In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and mostly by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that success has its price as well. For example, the investment banker has maybe effectively sold his soul for his ‘success’, which left him with so little spirit that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy the advantages that he has acquired. A person like this is not to be envied but rather pitied. To have more control over envy, it’s necessary to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.
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