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When we find ourselves feeling hostile towards others, we’re often advised to put ourselves in their position. The ubiquity of envy, however, suggests that this might be as likely to increase our enmity as weaken it.
Etymology provides some evidence for this. In Latin, to talk of “seeing into” the mind or life of another, you’ll need the words in and videre. But combine these two elements and you get invidere, meaning to regard maliciously, the root of both “invidious” and of “envy”. It is as though language itself understands that merely to see another’s situation is to invite negative feeling towards it.
The counterpoise to envy is, of course, empathy: feeling with others rather than just seeing into their situations. But although envy can be thus tempered, only the most saintly Bodhisattva can completely avoid it.
If we therefore want to deal rather than dispense with envy, we could start with the observation that it is rooted in a judgment that someone else is better placed than you in some respect. Where such a judgment is false, envy is simply a mistake, and recognising the error should be enough to remove it. Where it is true, the question then becomes, does this justify antipathy? Seeing that the answer is no may not entirely remove our envy but it could strip away its pernicious animosity.
But what if the answer is yes? What if someone is better off than you because they have acted selfishly, dishonestly or maliciously? In such cases, negative emotions are entirely appropriate. But now they can be seen not as manifestations of envy but of justified righteous indignation. The focus shifts from what you lack to what someone else unfairly has, from destructive bitterness to a constructive desire for greater justice.
By carefully examining our envy, we can therefore challenge its grounds, dilute its bile or transform it into a more righteous virtue. Easier said than done, of course, which is why anyone who can do all that is truly to be envied.
In our materialistic and achievement-orientated society, comparing ourselves with others is a daily experience. Envy is likely to follow. Many people struggle with it, caught between an intense desire for what others have and an awareness that envy does not make for a happy, peaceful life.
But it can be used constructively: if you find yourself coveting someone else’s job, or skills, it’s a sign that those things are valuable to you. Once you recognise this, you can reflect on your own situation and decide whether to take action.
Yet St Augustine didn’t describe envy as a “diabolical sin” for nothing. While it can be a useful starting point for reflection, we should be wary of embracing envy wholeheartedly. First of all, the values it points to are not necessarily those you would genuinely endorse and may just be an expression of cultural norms. Coveting a colleague’s salary might be natural but, on reflection, you may realise that money will not create a sense of fulfilment in your life.
We also need to be aware of the insidious way in which envy, if left unchallenged, can become an unacknowledged motivation for action: resentful of a colleague’s success, or a friend’s relationship, you might subtly act to undermine them.
Envy needs to be managed rather than nurtured. While a certain amount of envy is probably inevitable, you don’t have to indulge the envious thoughts that arise or act on them. You can choose to acknowledge and let them go.
You could also remind yourself that a life in which you obtain those coveted things would involve both gains and losses. As Epictetus points out, not being invited to a person’s banquet is not only a snub: it also means you didn’t have to praise someone you didn’t want to praise or put up with his hangers-on.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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