I have a standing meeting on Sunday morning from 9AM to 10PM. I love to listen to National Public Radio on the way home because “Hidden Brain” is on air with the host, Shankar Vedantam. I’m fascinated by the topics and most all, by the science of why we do the things we do. More importantly, the things we have in common are far more numerous than anything that divides us. Today’s topic, envy, was no different.
Envy has a poor reputation. It made the infamous ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ list. Depending on who makes up the list, it usually ranks second or third on a scale of one to seven. No one wants to admit feeling envious, but we all do it from time to time.
There are instances envy can have positive consequences. When used for social comparison it can motivate action leading to positive change that brings about happiness – ‘I wish I had what you had so I’m going to do what you did in order achieve it’. This is benign envy. It may be frustrating at times but leads toward action that is generally positive. It’s upside of the very human emotion of envy.
The other side is the one we are most familiar with: malicious envy. It’s the kind of envy that wants to pull a superior person down. That’s where schadenfreude, envy’s evil cousin, comes in – pleasure at another’s misfortune, laughing at another’s failure.
I could go into all the science, psychology, and sociology that explains envy, especially schadenfreude, but I’ll leave that to the experts. I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical story of Cain and Able. The story explains, either parabolically or literally, how envy reared its ugly head in human society.
The book of Genesis tells of two brothers, Cain, the older brother, and Abel, the younger of the two. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Cain would offer the first fruits of his produce in sacrifice to God. Abel would offer the “firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat”. For whatever reason God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. I often cited this story as the reason I didn’t like vegetables growing up! God obviously is not a vegan.
Anyway, Cain was peeved that he didn’t measure up (there’s the social comparison thing – kind of like ancient Facebook). He headed for his room and sulked. “God spoke to Cain: Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4.6-7 The Message).
I can only imagine what Cain was thinking, but I’ve been there, as much as I hate to admit it. We all have at one point or another. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination I get it. I know what it’s like to ‘never measure up’. I could never be ‘good’ enough to get on God’s good side. It wasn’t until many years later I discovered that there was absolutely nothing I could do anyway, nor did I have to. God’s good side is called grace and it is totally free. It can’t be earned, but that another story…
Most of us know the rest of the story. Cain experiences a severe case of schadenfreude. He not only wants to pull Abel down: Cain kills his own brother. Envy, malicious envy, puts Abel in the ground. Cain tries to deny his involvement, but ultimately faces the consequences of his action. I’ve been there.
In my younger years I chased a lot of pipe dreams out of envy and delighted in schadenfreude when those I viewed as competitors failed. I’m glad Facebook and social media wasn’t available back then. Comparison to the projected images on social media would have killed me. There’s no way I could ever measure up.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced envy and schadenfreude far less than I used to. It may simply be the result of getting older and hopefully, wiser. Robert Fulghum once wrote that one day he walked out to the mailbox in his old bathrobe, bunny slippers, and bedhead hair and didn’t care what others thought of him. He said it’s either “going to seed” or “the beginning of wisdom”. I can relate.
It’s not that I don’t care what others think of me. It’s that I have no energy or time left for chasing images. I’m content with reality these days. Life is simpler, full of gratitude, and drama-free. My quiet time on the porch and my days at the farm are filled with peace and serenity. Life is good…
Ultimately, it’s not important what you think of me or even what I think of me. The most important thing is what God thinks of me. Because of his grace, I know He not only loves me, but He’s especially fond of me. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else, because He’s especially fond of all His kids.
I maintain a presence on social media. I have a business and Opal’s Farm. Heck, my blog even gets posted on them. I simply wish others well when they get to have fabulous vacations to exotic places. I don’t get the check-ins and pictures of dinner, but I still get envious when I see someone eating a pint of Bluebell Chocolate ice cream…