Sunday, December 8, 2013

Envy


It's Advent again, the time of preparing the way for God.  There's a certain amount of delighted anticipation in this as I look at the ways in which the Kingdom of God is already with us and the ways in which I believe it will come.  There's also a certain amount of heavy lifting as I look again at the obstacles my own life puts in the way of God's kingdom being embodied on earth.   Most of those obstacles are old familiars like anxiety, carelessness, and participation in the consumer economy.  This year I also realized that I have been enmeshed in envy for some time. I am still figuring out what the root of that envy is and how I need to deal with it. I'd be glad for insights/suggestions/reading recommendations from other people who have dealt with this problem.
I used to think I wasn't envious, mainly because I didn't envy the things people assumed I would.  Some people who have boyfriends/husbands,official jobs or college degrees have earnestly reassured me that my lack of these things doesn't indicate any serious intrinsic defect on my part, and that someday I can also have those things.  I try to explain as nicely as possible that I really am not coveting what they have, that I am actually content with my life as it is.  I have casually envied people who seemed to fit completely inside their bodies, who moved with the grace and deftness I never learned, or people who had the sense of timing required to pull out smoothly into traffic or to tell a joke so that it actually sounded funny….but I've always been able to laugh at myself, or to remember that some things that come easy to me are hard for some other folks, and then to sit back and enjoy the other person's talents without making comparisons.
I deeply envy people who have qualities of character that I admire, strive for and repeatedly fail to achieve.  The courage and poise to face down snarling dogs or belligerent people and back them off so that they do and suffer no harm.  The wisdom to be silent when silence is called for, and then to speak only the necessary, true and healing word.  The confidence to state a conviction, an opinion or a preference simply and clearly without looking around to see what other people think of it.  The maturity, or humility, or confidence--I don't even know what it is--to delight in other people's good qualities without making comparisons, without feeling inferior or resentful.  
I am grateful for the people who possess these qualities.  I am glad to be in a world and in a community that includes such people. I wish to support those people in whatever ways I can. In my considered opinion all these statements are true.  In graced times I feel them to be true. In other times I don't.
Sometimes I look at the goodness in them and perceive an indictment of my own lacks.  When they show their goodness, or when other people describe it, my stomach churns.  Sometimes I imagine people silently thinking about how much more cowardly, inattentive, insecure and competitive I am.  Sometimes I realize that they aren't thinking of it in those terms at all, that they're not competing, that they're not preoccupied with my strengths or defects. This ought to be a relief, but in graceless times it isn't; it just makes it feel that much worse.  I think You have this wonderful thing that I lack, that I would love to have, and you don't even see that you have it. You assume that everybody has it, or is supposed to have it.  If you knew I didn't have it, what would you think of me?...and I am afraid.  Or I think, You've beaten me by a mile and you weren't even trying, you didn't even notice me, that's how much better you are… and I am resentful. 
As with anxiety, the biggest hurdle in dealing with envy seems to be acknowledging that it's there and looking at it instead of hiding from it.  I've managed that part, with help from some books and some friends.  Now that I'm paying attention, I think that envy, like most of my unfortunate habits and character traits, is composed of a basically healthy longing combined with a lie / distortion that causes me to pursue what I long for in the wrong way.  I'm still working on bringing both into focus.  
One good root of moral envy is my wish to make the world better.  I am grateful for the goodness around and within us.  I am also aware of the gap between what is and what should be--in our dealings with each other, in our use of the living world, in our faithfulness to Spirit. I know that I am partly responsible for that gap, and I want to close it.  I expect myself to grow in integrity and love and faithfulness, and to do as little harm as possible.  That's good, as far as it goes. However, it's easily warped by egotism. I grew up singing "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."  I'm not sure when there began to be a twist in my understanding of the words--when 'let it begin with me' came to mean not only 'let me be a peacemaker' but 'let me be the first, best peacemaker'. Not that I ever said that explicitly, because it would have sounded childish and ridiculous.  (At least, not on purpose.  Once while singing the Prayer of St. Francis, the part in the bridge that begins "O Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console…" I realized that I had substituted "control" for "console."  This gave me pause for thought.) 
Another good root is my awareness of what I've been given.  I grew up without physical fear or material want, with love and encouragement and good nourishment for mind, body and soul.  I have a healthy body and a capacious though capricious mind.  These things can make it easier for me to love and work effectively.  Remembering these things can make it harder for me to weasel out of doing what needs to be done. This remembrance can warp into an unhelpful sense of guilt and envy toward those who have had harder lives than mine and who show strengths of character which I lack.  I begin by berating myself for not living up to them and end up by resenting them.  
Some kind friends have tried to help me by pointing out my strengths.  That is sweet, but not necessarily helpful.  I know and enjoy many things I am good at, physically, mentally and morally.  But when I try to balance them as credits against the debits I see in my character the accounting becomes increasingly frantic and confused.
I think my way to healing is to live further into a truth that in some sense I have always known: that at the root we're all one.  That has been clear to me experientially as long as I can remember, and I'm reminded of it whenever I quiet my distractions and return to the awareness of God's presence. Sometimes that knowledge has been a simple delight. It has consoled me when I felt lonely or feared that I couldn't really be of help to others.  Sometimes that knowledge has been challenging.  When I have been angry with or disappointed in another group of people, when I would have liked to separate myself from them and think that I would never do what they did, I have been reminded that we are one in the root, that I also am capable of doing what they did--and, often, have done destructive things that looked less dramatic but arose from the same motivation that I suspect in them. 
I need to remember this same truth in the presence of people whom I admire and envy.  I need to remember that my goodness does not in any way compete with theirs. We are all in the same struggle.  We share the capacity for greed, fear and falsehood, and we can exacerbate these in one another.  We also share the capacity for love, courage and truth, and whenever we choose these we strengthen ourselves and one another. Whatever virtues come easily to anyone strengthen us all--and so do the virtues we come into only by hard striving, with much falling down and getting up again.
I know that on one level--it's quite obvious. If I were able to work that knowledge all the way into my breath and my bones, I think I wouldn't envy any more.  For now I'll try to use the gnawings of envy as signals to remind me of the truth. I suppose living as if the Truth was true is somewhat like the kingdom of God. It's here already, always; and it's not here yet. 

6 comments:

Micah Bales said...

Thanks, Joanna. This speaks to my condition!

randyvo said...

Thank you, Joanna; well stated as usual. You know, sometimes I think one of the gifts of growing older - and it IS a gift - is that you can find yourself sometimes becoming envious of an earlier self, one that could move a little faster, didn’t tire as quickly, and could remember a little more reliably (if I’m remembering that correctly). Envying things you’ve once had but naturally lost is ironic and humourous and rather silly, but it does help to remind us that what we think is “envious” is really not all the glitter we think it is. We can know that in our own lives, whatever good we might have done was hard work...whatever wrongs we committed and worked through came with some pain. Isn’t this true of every life? Do we really want to be envious then of somebody else’s cross, even if that cross looks like accomplishment or achievement or something admirable, while we’re still struggling with our own?

awholeheart.com said...

A good reminder, and a helpful way to turn back to the truth when envy arises. Thank you!

awholeheart.com said...

A good reminder, and a helpful conclusion, in your last paragraph--how to turn back to the truth.

silentassemblies said...

"For now I'll try to use the gnawings of envy as signals to remind me of the truth. I suppose living as if the Truth was true is somewhat like the kingdom of God. It's here already, always; and it's not here yet."

Yes, that's it, isn't it? Thank you for posting this at just the time I needed to read it!

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you, all! And thanks especially, Randy, for a connection I hadn't thought of before. I've already started to find myself nostalgic for friends and certainties I used to have, and to realize when I think about it that while I'm grateful for the way I've come I really don't want to go back...it hadn't occurred to me to think about the parallels between this and envying others, but now that you say it, it makes a lot of sense.