The Green-Eyed Monster

We tend to be discouraged by others' success and encouraged by their failure, but we must work to overcome our envy.

Q. How do I deal with my envy of other people?

There is an ancient fable that tells of a man lucky enough to get anything he wished--with the galling condition that his neighbor gets twice as much. He wishes for a beautiful house, only to watch his neighbor get a palatial mansion. He wishes for vast wealth, but his neighbor receives riches dwarfing his own. Finally, in bitter frustration, he wishes to be blinded in one eye. The moral is manifest: Better he should suffer a little and his neighbor suffer a lot, than he should profit a little and his neighbor profit a lot.

Once again, the insights of folklore and fable anticipate the findings of the sociologists and scientists. Studies show repeatedly that what we want is not more, but more than the other fellow. We are, all of us, subject to the corrosive peril of envy.

As La Rochefoucauld, an acute French observer of human nature, once said: It is not enough to succeed. One's friends must fail.

How often have we secretly, in the inner chambers of the heart, wished that others would fail because their success would bruise our ego, slow our career, or simply unsettle our ambition? How often have we clenched our teeth and pounded our fists over the good fortune of another? How many times have we nursed a secret viciousness as we smiled, patted someone on the back, and said, "Congratulations--I'm so happy for you"?


In the High Holiday liturgy, envy is called tzarut eyin--narrowness of vision. Envy is narrowness, being unable to recognize the legitimacy of others succeeding and being happy. Envy is seeing the world through the constricted vision of one's own desires alone.

We become familiar with this poison early, but it grows--it does not diminish--with time. Indeed, chronology aggravates envy: This one is so accomplished at my age.where am I?

Envy afflicts all of us, no matter how accomplished. I was recently told by a man who was endowing his alma mater with a million-dollar scholarship, "But I looked at what Bill Gates was doing, and I felt small." His accomplishments suddenly seemed negligible because his standard was the worth of someone else.

The success and good fortune of another becomes for many the invariable cause for their own unhappiness. All that is required to make us miserable is that somebody else is doing well. And there is, after all, a great deal of good fortune in this world.

At times, envy is an impulse to accomplishment. The Talmud advises that the jealousy of scholars increases wisdom. Of course, if envy leads you not to hate the other, but to improve yourself, wonderful. There is a spark lit by the keenness of competition that all of us recognize.

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