When I was very young, I came across a story that has left an indelible impression on me.
The story centers on two bedridden men who shared a hospital room. One bed was situated next to a window, and its occupant loved to tell his partner of the many delightful and entertaining events he could see. The co-occupant, deprived of such a view, grew increasingly envious.
His envy grew on a daily basis to the point that it incited him to murder his companion. At long last, he now had the bed next to the window. But when he pushed aside the curtains to enjoy the spectacle, all he could see was a brick wall. The deceased had not been a reporter, but a storyteller.
The moral that this story impressed upon me is that even if we gain what we covet, we may become disillusioned and made even more miserable. Envy can be traitorous.
The best and simplest definition of envy belongs to St. Thomas Aquinas, who described it as “sorrow at another’s good fortune.” St. John Baptist de la Salle embellished this definition somewhat when he referred to envy as, “A criminal sorrow for the welfare of our neighbor.” The inclusion of the word “criminal” is important, because it brings out the sinful character of envy inasmuch as it violates the Christian command to love our neighbor.
Envy places us not with others, but against them. Therefore, it engenders the wrong feelings; it makes us sorrowful at the good that others have, and leads us to rejoice at their misfortunes. Envy is misanthropic.
Some people think that we need envy in order to be competitive and get ahead. They think that envy is the engine that drives progress. The absence of envy, however, does not render us stagnant. It is perfectly consistent with Christian principles to “aspire” to good things. Aspiration is the desire and the hope of achieving the things God wants us to achieve. We can all aspire to be holy. Envy, on the other hand, is the desire to have what others have. Envy is covetous.
Some people think that envy is natural since it is so close to us that it seems almost inevitable. How commonplace envy is between one student and another who gets a higher grade, or one employee and another who earns a higher salary, or one ballplayer and another who amasses a higher batting average! Yet envy is not natural as much as it is primitive. Christians are called to grow beyond the primitive stage and become more complete and more Christlike. Envy is complacency.
Because envy is a deadly sin and essentially a potentially ruinous disposition, it is wise that we take steps to rid ourselves of it. Here are 12 ways in which we can take steps to exterminate this scourge:
1. Thank God and be grateful for what he has given us. God has blessed us in different ways. Gratitude — the memory of the heart — is an effective enemy of envy.
2. Rejoice in what other people have, especially the gifts that God has lavished on them. We cannot have everything, and the gifts that others have complements our own.
3. Realize that envy makes us sad, a negative disposition that is not conducive to making the most of the gifts we have. God loves a cheerful giver, but he also loves a cheerful receiver.
4. Replace envy with determination. Let us be determined to bring to harvest the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. We can be determined to be better human beings.
5. Let us understand that envy is a self-administered poison. It is far better to compliment people for their accomplishments than grow green and sick with envy.
6. We contradict ourselves when we are envious. We would prefer that others praise us for our achievements rather than have our accomplishments make them sullen with envy. Therefore, applying the Golden Rule, we should praise others they way we would have them praise us. We should give and receive credit whenever credit is due.
7. We should meditate on how praising others is a normal human responsibility. Consider the responsibility that parents have in praising their children’s accomplishments. It would be selfish and counterproductive for parents to envy their children. To “parent” means bringing out the best in our children.
8. When we envy others we shortchange ourselves in two ways: a) by neglecting our own gifts; b) by being reluctant to accept and benefit from the gifts of others. Envy is self-defeating.
9. Envy, if not checked, leads to other deadly sins, such as anger, sloth and avarice. Envy does not help us get what we want. It helps us to get exactly what we do not want. And this is precisely what happens when envy begets anger.
10. When we envy others, we rarely appreciate the fact that their gifts can demand hard work and even harsh suffering. Sometimes what we envy comes with a cost that we could not bear.
11. Realize that God knows what he is doing and doles out his gifts in accordance with his providential wisdom. Envy contains more than a touch of irreverence. God wants us to benefit from each other’s gifts. He wants a community of helpers, not an anarchy of grouches.
12. The symphony of life requires a variety of gifts. The orchestra needs the concert pianist as well as the rarely used cymbalist. If every musician strove to be a concert pianist, no one could ever become one. The concert pianist requires a full orchestra to complement him.
It is as foolish for musicians to envy one another as it is for people in general to envy one another in the symphony of harmonious social interaction. Consider the fate of poor Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival, in Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus.”
God is incapable of envy, and this is why he decided to share his wealth by creating us. Banishing envy is a way of becoming more Godlike.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College.