Towards the end of last year, I wrote about three qualities I wanted to invest less of my time and energy into: fear, judgment, and envy. (You can read that post by clicking here.) My thoughts have returned to those themes of late. And given that the imminence of the year’s end can be counted in weeks, it seemed a fitting time to revisit the topic and assess any progress—or regress—I’ve made. (I’ll begin with envy and save judgment and fear for another time.)
I have fought against envy since grade school. I was educated alongside the children of the rich and famous, but then went home to a neighborhood full of the poor and anonymous. Many of my academic cohorts had recognizable last names and lived on Park Avenue. I lived in a notorious neighborhood—walking distance from the projects—one that was eponymous with bad news.
My family provided for all of my needs and most of my wants, but it was hard not to envy the excess so many of my classmates enjoyed. They didn’t have to look at price tags or wait for sales. They didn’t censor their requests to avoid being disappointed or to protect their family’s finances. They didn’t worry about money on behalf of their parents. I did.
I wasn’t particularly jealous of the tangible or physical perks of wealth. It didn’t bother me that my home wasn’t worth millions (or billions). I didn’t covet their duplicate wardrobes (one in the city and one in the country). I had enough things to be satisfied. What I wanted, what I really envied, was that they had no monetary shackles. For them, finances were never an obstacle, restraint, or source of worry (as far as I could tell). They were lavished with wealth. They had enough to give enough to change someone’s life—to change their world. I too wanted to feel free to spend and give absentmindedly or with productive purpose.
A few facts helped me to fight against (and defeat) my envy. These realizations are still invaluable to me when I’m tempted to surrender to jealousy.
First of all, life is not a carton of eggs. You can’t open it up and trade out the damaged or discolored ones for those you’d prefer. Life is more like a pint of blueberries. You have to take the sweet with the sour. Some pints (like some lives) look better than others (especially from the outside), but you’ll never find a perfect one.
So if I am going to envy, I can’t envy in part. I have to envy the whole life, not just this or that component. Thankfully, I have yet to find the person whose entire existence I would trade for mine. I may really want one or two aspects of someone else’s life, but not enough to give up my own in its entirety.
I’m not saying every life balances out. Some lives have more blessings and some have more suffering and loss. Some people are wealthy; others are not. Some are born into or able to create more opportunities for success; others are destined to flounder. But I believe (perhaps naively) that every life has its relative famines and bounties. Yours might be flashier, fancier, or bigger. Mine might be more humble, difficult, or meager. But everyone gets some—some good, some bad. Granted, everyone’s “some” will be different.
Growing up without a lot of money I learned how to be grateful, because much of what I had was a gift, blessing, or miracle. The education I received, the experiences I had, the trips I took, none of it should have been possible on what my parents earned. My life’s story is full of the generosity of others, and I am grateful for all of it.
Gratitude helps. It’s hard for me to be jealous when I’m grateful. Envy focuses on deficits and disparities. Gratitude reorients me towards what is good—my blessings. Gratitude isn’t stupid, dishonest, or forgetful. Gratitude does not require the denial of loss, lack, or hardship. It can coexist with all of these things. What gratitude does do, at least for me, is prevent those things that are good from being obscured by my coveting.
Gratitude is more grounded in reality than envy. Jealousy has a way of focusing on just one thing at the expense of others. Jealousy gives us an incomplete (and sometimes deceiving) picture. Envy ignores the hours of work that generated the salary—the sacrifice of time that could have been spent with family. Jealousy tends to overlook the years of practice, confusion, or failure that preceded the success. Coveting discounts the cost of the benefit. It makes it harder to see the corresponding hardships, temptations, or personal demons.
Jealousy often puts us in the mindset that another person’s good fortune leaves less in the world for us. And while some things in life are finite, most things are not. Love, joy, laughter, success, friendship, peace—these things can never be used up. They don’t deplete.
Envy makes us want, and wanting often leads to withholding and holding on more tightly to whatever we do have. We’re less willing to give congratulations when someone else accomplishes a dream or goal we have for ourselves. We become miserly with our affirmations and good will (even our Facebook “likes”) when we’re jealous. We decide that the wealthy have enough to support this or that cause, so we hold onto our own money.
Gratitude helps me to fight against jealousy because true gratitude engenders generosity. An awareness of how much I have reminds me of what others need. When I immerse my thoughts in all that I am grateful for, and all that others lack, it’s hard for me to feel envy. There’s no mental or emotional capacity left for coveting. Instead, I’m compelled to give. And when I’m giving, I’m not looking for my own deficits. Instead I’m trying to offer to others out of what I already have—whether it’s my money, knowledge, time, love, or talents.
So, how am I doing in my fight against envy? It’s not a linear lesson, and I’m still learning. I faced two big temptations since the start of this year—two milestones others achieved that I’m far from reaching. I expected to covet. And perhaps I did for a spell, but then I was able to turn my jealousy of them into a hope for myself.
When I find myself envying what someone else has, I remind myself that a person’s wealth and possessions are not the sum total of his or her life. Money can do a lot, but it doesn’t buy health, joy, love, or a safe and stable family. And while lots of things can be fun to have, things don’t make me happy.
When I find myself jealous of another person’s accomplishment, I remind myself of how hard he or she must have worked for it. If I’m willing to work the same way, then my jealousy can transform into a motivating energy. But it’s unfair for me to want the reward separate from the prerequisite work. It’s folly to covet the marathon winner’s medal if you’re not willing to run.