Envy: The Vice that Stings You Twice

It’s listed among the seven deadly sins, but envy seems to be the least fun one. After all, you profit temporarily from lust, gluttony, and sloth, to name a few of the good vices, but what is the draw of envy? Why do we submit to it, even indulge in and obsess about it, knowing, as we do, that it is painful and pointless?

Envy, like the tango, takes two. There is one who has, or seems to have, something ineffably wonderful. And there is the other, nose pressed resentfully against a glass divider, who feels he hasn’t got it. Who worries, with increasing misery, that he’ll never get it. As painful as it is to be the have-not, being the object of envy is known to be quite pleasant. When I was in grade school, a girl I’ll call Linda used to bring in M&Ms. She would put one in her mouth, dropping it in almost delicately. Red, green, brown, tan – each little disk would twirl momentarily on her tongue, then vanish. would smile at me as I watched her. “Oh, do you want one?” she’d ask. And I, a foolish celebrant, would admit, “yes!” This naked request cued her next move: Linda would scrabble for another piece in the bag. After displaying it like a jewel in the light, she’d then pop it in her mouth, shaking her head: “No. I don’t think I’ll give you one today.”

That day, and every day the heartless hussy dragged the candy-bag into school, she got me. I suffered envy and it knocked me backward. She was lucky; I was not. She was favored with pleasure; I was doomed to hunger. I’m sure the chocolate never tasted as good to Linda as the feeling that she was the lucky one. After all, she had more than I did. Not only did she have more candy; she could transform that mathematical fact into humiliation, attesting to her greater power. Linda, I recall you after all these years. All the chocolates in the world could not mask the bitterness I still feel. Are you dead now, of diabetes? I hope so, Linda.

Two decades later, when sweets mattered less than seduction, I found myself actually looking at bottled “Envy.” There’s an expensive perfume with that name, and I’ve bought and worn it. I’m guessing that “Envy” aficionados like me were attracted not only by its combination of fragrant elements, but also by the thought that we, former losers and window-gazers, could be the lucky ones now. At least when we sprayed ourselves with the stuff.

Win or lose, where did this game come from? Why do we pair up willingly – me versus you, you versus me? What fuels these toxic comparisons? One flaunts, the other resents. The story’s as old as Cain and Abel, but what does it signify, and why do we continue to play its parts? An answer one often hears is that America (and the modern world in general) breeds envy. There is always something new to buy, some updated status-signifier that your neighbor flaunts in the driveway. Maybe their kid runs faster, hauled a nicer potato-clock to the science fair, or is headed to a better college or career. Maybe their home is simply larger, with a brassier, shinier doorknob or a more melodious bell, and the smell of their organic rutabaga trumps your humble mac and cheese.

I’ve asked enough rhetorical questions, and will answer them at last. From where I stand, neither the best or the worst, the luckiest or unluckiest (and it’s where you stand, too), we suffer from envy due to existential factors. Life is rocky. One minute is good, and the next could be awful. No matter how determined we are, we are rightly insecure about the vagaries of fate. Now, add that we are insecure in ourselves. Even if we started out beloved by our parents, maybe the world didn’t always second their generous opinion. Perhaps we were high school athletes who never made it to the majors. Maybe we were beauties who discovered that the concept of wrinkles and cellulite applies to all mortals. The bottom line: We never quite know what we have or how long we can have it. We get nervous. We look for a vantage point, a sightline, something to help us steer to the safest harbor. We look around at others to gauge where we are.

Sometimes that is good. Sometimes we recognize a real avenue of interest by watching other people. Your friend plays piano really well. Her Chopin renditions make you cry, and not in a good way, but from self-pity. And then you take lessons. Bravo: You learned something from your envy. More often, however, comparisons to others are futile and destructive. You leave the sanctity of your own self, nearly falling over as you tilt towards the vicarious and hollow indulgence of watching someone else.

Woody Allen wrote many great jokes, but my favorite is this: A student confesses, “I cheated on my philosophy exam. I looked into the soul of the student sitting next to me.” I am looking into the soul of Woody’s witticism now, and think it pinpoints the source of envy’s sting. We will never, ever find our lodestar in comparisons to other people. True, it would have been hard for Cain to say, “Oh, well, God likes Abel’s sacrifice better. Maybe I’ll try to be more like him.” It would have been even harder for Cain to come to terms with who he was, and what his gifts were: “I LIKE hunting, and I’m good at it. Abel can’t hunt like I do – he’s kind of a wimp. Maybe someday, God will crave fresh ox-flank. I, not my brother, will shine on that day. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the nature of my self – a man of the outdoors, swift as a lion.” Poor Cain couldn’t come up with these alternative responses, but maybe we can.

Linda had the chocolate, but I get to write about her, and about them, and about envy. Each of us has some great, interior gift that’s ours alone. And dwelling on that unique bounty, relishing it more than the gleaming fixations outside us – that’s a cure to envy’s pain, and the source of life’s greatest contentment.