“Throughout history, in all stages of cultural development, in most languages and as members of widely differing societies, men recognized a fundamental problem of their existence and have given it specific names: the feeling of envy and being envied.” —Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (1966)
Envy has always been a problem for me.
As such, it joins my other problems, such as worry, OCD, procrastination, and my concern over eating foods with too much sugar and salt rather than sticking to shredded wheat and carrots. But having all those problems simply increases my envy, since I know that there are people who worry less than I do; who check the door to their house just once when they leave (if that); who do things immediately; and who eat doughnuts, corned beef and pastrami without a care in the world. So, in a sense, one could say the biggest problem for me is envy.
I know I’m not the only one who suffers from this – certainly not, if Schoeck was right when he wrote that it is “a fundamental problem of…existence.” And that helps. But then I realize that feeling good about the fact that others suffer is something I’d like to get rid of, and so then I’m envious of those who are less self-centered and thus less envious than I am.
But indeed envy is a common difficulty for people, and one of the reasons I know this is that there are all kinds of sayings that are meant to help us deal with it. For example, there is “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Of course, living in a progressive community as I do, there are two ways to take this expression. The first is the usual: People’s lives look better than ours because all we see is the outside and we don’t know the problems they have. The second is, Zoning should have prohibited that fence, and if their grass really is greener they are probably using some kind of herbicide that may be getting into my well water. Who do these people think they are?
There’s also this suggestion: Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. Again, the idea is that until you really know someone you might think they are on top of the world, when, in reality, they have problems too. Yeah, yeah, I know, but when someone’s outsides are beautiful, like it’s a guy who is tall, calm, and handsome, it’s hard to believe that his “insides” are the mess that mine, in my less than perfect body, are.
There is a flip side to being envious, of course, and that is being enviable. That means that people are envying you. At first glance this seems better. You must be doing pretty well if you know that other people want what you have. But don’t fool yourself. Along with enviability comes guilt. And fear. If you have something other people want, maybe they will try to take it from you.
The Biblical saying is “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” But with all these movements and therapists trying to make sure meek people become as unmeek as possible, a more realistic way of looking at people today would have the saying go, “Blessed are the envious, for they shall make sure the enviable wind up with nothing.”
To show you how bad the envy thing is for me, I find myself envious of Helmut Schoeck, the guy who wrote the book I quote above. In his early 40s Schoeck found his calling. He wrote that book about envy in German, and it wound up being translated into 10 languages. It also became something of a bestseller. Even today, on Amazon.com, the English language version ranks number 416,465 in sales. That might not sound so great, but keep in mind that the original book was published in 1966 and the English language version cited in Amazon appeared in 1987 – that’s 27 years ago. For comparison purposes, The Sprout Book: A Celebration of the Humble Brussels Sprout came out five-and-a-half years ago, and its sales ranking is a lowly 1,278,744
Obviously, people are more interested in envy than in Brussels sprouts. So I have no envy of Tess Read, who wrote the sprout book, but as for Schoek, it’s a different story.
But why should I envy Schoeck? Yes, he achieved a certain amount of fame for his book, but he is dead (he died in 1993). Does it really pay to envy dead people? (If I do, why stop with Schoeck? Why not envy Mark Twain or even Shakespeare?) Also, since I know that when you work on a book, the topic often has at least some relevance to your own life, I would assume that Schoeck, himself, was probably filled with envy. I would imagine that Read was, for a while, obsessed by Brussels sprouts, but at least there was no reason for her to be envious (except perhaps of those who write books about broccoli).
And then there’s me. Schoeck became famous for his envy work and Read wrote the definitive work on Brussels sprouts. And how do I spend my time? Comparing these two people. For those who have ever envied me, think about that.