In 2013, Salon’s Andrew Leonard revealed that novelist Robert Clark Young had been editing Wikipedia for years in a systematic campaign to downplay the achievements of other writers and make himself look better. Young deleted references to prizes that others had won, removed positive comments about their work, and reduced the length of their bibliographies. In several cases, it appears that Young had quarrelled with the targeted novelists in the past, and that he thought that he deserved the acclaim that they had received. None of this effort actually made his own writing better or changed the accomplishments of other novelists; it only made Young look better by comparison. In other words, Young’s work was motivated by envy.
This is hard to write, but I have struggled with envy for the past few years. Not with everything: seeing someone with a nicer car, a nicer house, or nicer clothes rarely makes me feel much of anything. And the accomplishments of strangers don’t effect me much. But if I see that someone I know has been published in a prestigious magazine, been appointed to a high-profile role, or received some sort of public recognition, I feel a stab of resentment.
That should have been me. What makes them so special? They don’t deserve that.
It’s an ugly, poisonous reaction. It has been included in the Seven Deadly Sins for good reason. Envy is the darker cousin of discontentment, because it’s accompanied by resentment toward others and a desire to have what belongs to them.
Why Envy Is So Destructive
Envy blinds us to our blessings. When we envy, we focus on what others have and what we lack, rather than taking stock of the many good things we have received. Envy may be a particularly easy sin to commit in the social media age, when we can so easily review the most post-worthy achievements of our network of friends and acquaintances. So far as I’m aware, there is no social network dedicated to reflecting on the good things that we already have in our lives. Envy, though, predates social media; it has always been more tempting to covet the possessions of others than to give thanks for our own.
Envy makes an idol of whatever we envy. Human beings can envy just about anything you can imagine — possessions, good looks, family status, professional achievements, or “anything that belongs to your neighbor” as Exodus 20 puts it. Envy takes the object of our envy and makes that the measure of our worth. Envy replaces our inherently infinite worth as human beings with the lesser, temporary, finite worth of things, acclaim, or something else. We end of measuring ourselves against others using false standards, and we submit ourselves to a false ruler.
Envy distorts our relationships with others. When we envy someone else, we resent them for what they have. Our envy prevents us from having a healthy attitude toward that person:
- We don’t celebrate their accomplishments with them.
- We don’t respect them for their virtues, character, and hard work.
- We don’t learn from their experience and achievements.
- We don’t seek to comfort them when they experience difficulties.
Instead, our envy regards them as a rival and competitor, as if life were a zero-sum game. We may even accuse them of “cheating” us out of what we deserve.
Envy distorts our perception of ourselves. Just as envy can cause us to ignore our blessings, it can also lead us to amplify our shortcomings. We begin blaming ourselves for not earning or achieving the objects of our desire, re-interpreting our personal history and past decisions in terms of our envy. We may even resent good decisions that took us in a different direction than the person we envy: working fewer hours to spend time with our family, canceling our gym membership to save money for a house, taking a more stable but less prestigious career path for the sake of our family. Envy is an internal sin just as much as it is an external one.
Envy prevents us from doing the real work of our vocation. When our envy is connected to our vocation, we are tempted to chase external trappings — acclaim, awards, checkmarks on a resume — rather than the true reality of our work. For example, if we are a writer who gives in to envy, we start writing what we expect will bring us praise from important people, instead of the truths that we know need to be written. In other fields, envy may lead us to chase after glory and ignore the unnoticed, faithful work that needs to be done.
Turning Away from Envy
How can we avoid envy in our vocation?
- Confess and repent. Acknowledge your envy as the sin that it is. Repent of it, which involves not just turning away from the sin but turning toward something better (metanoia, as the New Testament puts it).
- Give thanks. Reflect on the good in your life, not only in your career/vocation, but in your entire life. Think about the decisions you have made, and give thanks for where they have taken you.
- Celebrate the achievements of others. Go out of your way to praise, congratulate, and show your appreciation for others. This may feel false at first, since it might not match our internal feelings, but over time, our behavior will influence our thinking.
Finally, if we are to be faithful in our vocation, it’s crucial that we expose sins like envy as the destructive forces that they are and root them out of our lives. Hard work isn’t enough to eliminate envy, so we ought also to pray for God to transform our heart and mind.
Photo credit: lamazone via Flickr