Summer Quote Series (Week 6)

“Wealth is like seawater; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.” ~Arthur Schopenhauer   From the Archives: Money Isn’t Joy       Advertisements

Feeling Blessed & Guilty

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, I knew I was blessed to go to school with the wealthy. I didn’t have the emotional fortitude for my neighborhood’s public schools. I would have been too insecure and deferential to flourish. But for as blessed as I felt to have Ph.D.’s for teachers, get textbooks I could keep, and have a bountiful spread of food to choose from at lunch (at no additional cost), I also felt guilty. Why me?

All of the kids in my neighborhood weren’t going to an elite private school. All of the kids in my church didn’t have testimonies about kind benefactors funding trips to Europe. These were incredible experiences. I felt very blessed. However, I also felt guilty. Why me? What made me worthy?

It helped to ascribe some of the blessing to my mother’s prayerful, faith-filled living. I knew that she and God were buddies. But what about all the other poor kids whose moms were also best friends with God? Why weren’t they all experiencing the same perks I was?

Every time I was prompted to share my latest testimony, I worried that those listening would feel jilted or jealous. I worried that my testimonies sounded like bragging. I shared them with reluctance. I toned things down so I wouldn’t sound arrogant. I was embarrassed by my blessings in the face of so much want in the world.

What I’ve come to realize (and this is an ongoing struggle for me—feeling blessed and guilty) is that just as I can be genuinely happy for a loved one who gets something I want, others can be genuinely happy for me. I might feel wistful and wishful, but I’m not envious, especially when I keep things in perspective. Plus, everyone’s idea of a blessing is not the same. So it’s fruitless to get mired in comparisons. You might want a boyfriend. I might want a house. She might want a promotion. He might want time off. It’s not worthwhile worrying that others are jealous of what I have. Everyone’s hopes and dreams are different.

Furthermore, blessings are about the one who blesses, not the blessed. It’s about God, not me. I haven’t earned any of it. When I look back at my life, I see how much this is true. I haven’t felled any literal Goliaths with a stone, but God has equipped me to do more than I could have done on my own. I’ve never wielded a slingshot, but I have seen the meager finances of my family fell many a financial foe.

For example, my parents bought a home in New York City without a mortgage, and they weren’t wealthy at all. They were a young, immigrant couple with a toddler (me). They both worked hard. My father worked multiple jobs (almost never taking a day off) to put himself through college and law school. They were renting when a neighbor they’d been kind to decided to sell her home directly to them.

My two siblings and I all went to prestigious private schools—again, not because my parents were affluent, but because doors (and scholarships) opened up for us. Even when my financial footing wasn’t secure, I flourished. Although I spent a couple of post-college years without a fulltime job, I was still able to pay rent, buy a car, visit my grandparents in Grenada every year, and pay off my student loans so that I’d be debt-free by the time I got married. (That last one even came several years early.)

All of these experiences and achievements (improbable, if not impossible, by the world’s natural standards) have strengthened my faith, and that faith is a constant source of encouragement and peace. Some might call it luck or karma or coincidence, but I see it as God-affirming evidence. Especially when a loss gives me more than I had before—as after the fire or my husband’s car accident. In both of those cases certain losses also led to upgrades. In both of those cases a difficulty also led to blessings.

Why me? Why are some lives so full of hardships while others seem to have it easy? Well, I’ve begun to answer my own question—it’s in the word seem. The reality of a life and how it appears to onlookers are two different things. Just because someone appears to have it all doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. And many we might be tempted to feel sorry for don’t covet our lives or want our pity. Wealth isn’t happiness. Fame isn’t friendship. No one life is all good or all bad. It’s why I try so hard to not be envious. Who am I to begrudge the good another person enjoys? In the same manner, I shouldn’t let my life’s blessings make me feel embarrassed.

Feeling guilty is usually an indication that I am looking at things from the wrong perspective. Why me? Why you? I don’t actually know. But I don’t think why is the important part. First of all, my life’s blessings do not take anything away from anyone else—especially if they afford me the ability to be generous. Secondly, life is not a competition. It’s a gift. We haven’t been called to earn, but to receive, enjoy, and share it.

 

“You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”

~ 2 Corinthians 9:11

“You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

~ Marianne Willaimson

Against Envy

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.