Envy: The Key to My Success

Being jealous of other writers is what gave a bestselling author her start

BY: Debra Dickerson

 

This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2002.



There’s no doubt that envy is a time-honored character-killer: you need look no farther than Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to know you can’t be subject to it and consider yourself enlightened, heaven bound, or pleasant to carpool with. The Bible inveighs against it repeatedly. Envy helped bring about The Fall; prodding Satan to traduce Eve into eating the apple because of his jealous feelings. So virulent and soul-destroying is it that, according to Ecclesiastes (30:24) “envy and wrath shorten the life.”

For its part, death alone can cut short envy's run in the human heart, as Francis Bacon pointed out. “Death … extinguisheth envy,” he wrote. So there’s that to look forward to as the coffin lid closes. You no longer have to envy the convertible-driving, mansion-inheriting, beautiful, busty blondes who wouldn’t let you join Gamma Delta Pi freshman year.

This isn't the only upside of envy, either. Counterintuitive as it seems, envy can be a poisonous form of praise. “The wicked envy and hate; it is their way of admiring,” wrote Victor Hugo. In the recent movie "Malena," a beautiful and guileless wife of a soldier, whiling away WWII in her husband’s small town while he's at the front, is all but murdered because of envy. The men spy on her in her most intimate moments. They lie about their exploits with her until she is deemed wanton. The women despise her effect on their husbands. No one will hire her. She has no choice but to prostitute herself to either the townsmen or the German occupiers. She chooses the latter, and at the war’s end, the townswomen beat her savagely and force her out of town. In the final scene, years later, her returned husband escorts Malena through the town square. The townspeople greet her warmly in her new incarnation as a properly chaperoned, unassuming, unattractive matron. She is dressed drably, her hair short, her manner cramped and timid. Now she’s just like them. With their pinched spirits and grudging souls, their torture had been as close as they could come to praise.

Envy, then, is a sin because it warps your humanity. But must envy operate this way? May it never inspire? "Envy’s a sharper spur than pay," someone noted, and that has definitely been true for me. Growing up working class and inner city, I saw early on that lots of people had lots more than I did. This was true even within the community--I was never in danger of becoming Prom Queen. I credit my parent’s bleak Southern Baptist Protestantism with teaching me not to focus on such things. From the cradle I was taught that this was an unjust world, the only point of which was to prepare for the next one. Resentment and ‘begrudging’ were as sinful as the injustice that precipitated them. Unfairness was to be expected, but never proffered as justification for sin, or slacking.

 

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