Envy is secretly cherished in our bosoms though most of us would vehemently deny that we ever envied anyone. Within, we have convinced ourselves that envy is what drives us forward . . . what propels us to achieve . . . what makes us want to show the world all that we can be. But what is envy really? Marcus Aurelius suggests, “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself, what is its nature?”
Thus, what is envy’s nature? Or can is be defined? Perhaps, it is merely a cousin of jealousy, the so-called “green-eyed monster”. And how many of us are lying when we say we aren’t “the jealous type”?
How much easier it is to turn our eyes away from the parts of ourselves we would rather not possess than it is to not only acknowledge them but also actually examine them! Why must be so honest with ourselves? The only way to be at peace with who we are is by seeing ourselves as better, nicer, kinder people than we truly know ourselves to be. Otherwise, we would surely feel like miserable wretches! Is it not so?
Yes, Socrates said that envy was “the ulcer of the soul.” But are our souls not already ulcerated by the countless tragedies that have made up our lives? Have we not been mistreated by others—or, at the least, been the innocent victim of harsh circumstances? It would seem that for all that most of us have endured, a little envy would be practically justified. When those around us have been fortunate enough to enjoy privileges that we have only been able to dream about, it is only human for us to wish that we could have those same privileges for ourselves.
We quote Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle not because we think that their words of virtue and wisdom should be taken literally. Rather, we want to remind ourselves of all that we could be if we were closer to gods than mortals. Of course, even the gods were envious of each other. That being said, Socrates was undoubtedly preaching that which he failed to practice in his own life. Although people say that envy comes from a sense of false pride, you and I know that if we felt completely secure in ourselves, we would have no need of envying anyone else.
It is because we do doubt ourselves so much and have so little faith in our own abilities and capacities that we envy others. Without knowing what the person we envy has experienced in his life, it isn’t difficult to imagine ourselves swapping places with him. When he seems to have so many things that we have always wanted and yet don’t possess or haven’t been able to achieve, how can we prevent ourselves from envying him? If we had been given the same chances in life he had, think of how much we would have achieved!
“Envying another man’s happiness is madness,” Andre Gide said. “You wouldn’t know what to do with it if you had it.” Well, that’s easy for Gide to say! But I’m sure none of us can say that we wouldn’t know how to make use of someone else’s bliss. What we may forget is that in order to enjoy the bliss, we would have to exchange everything else with the other man as well. Ah, that’s the part we don’t want to think about! For once we accept that there is never happiness without grief, he whom we envy is transformed in our eyes. If we can focus strictly on the outer appearance of his life, we can feed our envy with food that will nourish it.
Yet, if we get close enough to the man that we see both his joys and his sorrows, his setbacks and his achievements, the poisonous flowers of envy begin to die on the vine. We cannot envy that which we see clearly, for envy, being the product of self-deception, prevents us from being capable of genuine discernment. Although we tell ourselves that we are deceived by others, is it impossible for someone else to deceive us without our first or at least simultaneously deceiving ourselves.
Envy is the fruit of deceit, and that is why it is such a normal feeling to experience. If we stopped deceiving ourselves, our level of clarity would be too intense for us to envy anyone. For we would see that each person’s journey contains struggles all its own. And once this knowledge became part of our reality, we would have to let go of all sorts of things that we are living with now—greed, resentment, bitterness, pride, vanity, anger, hate, and fear.
We might even be inclined to feel a connection to our fellow-men—a connection formed of love and compassion. It is a revolutionary concept, for we nurture our demons as we would carefully chosen pets. Letting go of them is much more difficult than it sounds. And we have to learn to prefer emptiness over the false sense of wholeness that the demons gave us.
Yet, might it not be that letting go of envy and its fellow demons is what is meant by the concept of mastering oneself? Perhaps, even Nietzsche had this in mind when he spoke of nothing being too high a price to pay for owning oneself. The alienation and loneliness he spoke of will always be felt by those who decide to listen to the still, small voice within themselves as opposed to the clamour of the masses. And those who choose love instead of hate and goodwill instead of envy may never be part of the in-crowd.
Love, Peace, and Joy,
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