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.
For the most part though, I grasped that I’d drown if I gave in to resentment. Instead, what I envy, I emulate. If I don’t want to emulate it--Madonna and that woman who lived in a tree for 2 years to prevent its being logged come to mind--I simply admire the achievement and move on without ‘player hating’. Giving credit where credit is due is a hallmark of both adulthood and spiritual maturity. It’s also a useful barometer for ascertaining whether you’ve lived up to your own potential. Others' accomplishments should either bounce off you or motivate you to action.
It was the phenomenal success of the novel "Waiting to Exhale" in the early ‘90s that got me off my comfy couch to start writing, instead of just thinking about it. An awful book, "Waiting to Exhale" sold millions and spawned a literary and cinematic dynasty for its author, Terry MacMillan. I can write at least this well, I thought while reading it. I never resented MacMillan; I just wanted the same thing she had: I want a literary and cinematic dynasty! Seeing her accomplish this made it seem more likely that I could, too. Best of all, we could both be successful writers; a plus mark in her column is not a minus in mine. But if I wanted what MacMillan had, I had to do what she did--write.
Envy, then, need not be the dark side of admiration; it can be the catalyst for healthy competition. Envy adds to the luster of those you envy, it doesn’t catch you up to them. You can join them, not beat them.
Once, a writer friend and I were browsing in a used bookstore. She ran across a shelf full of six or seven novels by a writer of moderate literary prominence. “Oh, this guy!” she groused. He’s everywhere and he’s awful. Jeez, how many books has he written, anyway? I bet he was ugly when he was young,” she snarled and turned to his jacket photos.
While she continued, I became engrossed by the progression of his author’s photos over his 25-year career. Callow and smug-faced in his 20s, he became mellow and open-faced in his 50s. He hung in there. He made it.He lived the writer’s life and he never took a ‘straight job'. I was fascinated by his unDorian Gray like photo parade. I bought his books, all of them, just so I could cut up the dust jackets and mount the photos. I look at them nearly everyday and think: I want that. I want to be able to spread my books out on a table and watch myself move forward in time. In short: I envy him. I didn’t like his books, but I still envy him. I also thank him--he’s motivated me to live up to my potential as a writer.
"Envy and jealousy are the private parts of the human soul," Friedrich Nietzsche naughtily observed. It can be your friend. It can let you know what you really, truly want. But if you’re not careful, you can really screw yourself with it.