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The Antidote to Envy

How to value the life you have and do something with it.

Recently, I discovered Womankind, a beautiful, thoughtful, and elegant new magazine published in Australia and available worldwide. The graceful editor, Antonia Case, inquired if I might write an essay for the most recent volume. Issue #9 was published in July 2016 and is now on the shelves in the United States. Learn more about Womankind. So here it is, The Antidote to Envy.

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

If I had a choice when it comes to vice, I’d pick any of the seven classics save the vice of envy. At least the other six have a connection to goodness, at least some of the time. Just think of the delicious indulgence of a lazy weekend or surrender to a decadent dessert; the juicy satisfaction of a lustful fantasy or the thrill of pride. Even a passionate fight has something good to recommend it. But to my mind, envy is the deadliest of the seven deadlies, and in a category all its own. Envy turns us against ourselves and others. It disturbs peace of mind, fueling shame and guilt. At its root, envy is felt to be so fundamentally bad because it highlights what is lacking and hates goodness itself.

Consciously, envy is so painful because it is based in a feeling of deprivation. We look at our neighbors and long for what they have, imagining their lives to be so much more beautiful, happy, and satisfying than our own. While an age-old phantom­­, Shakespeare’s green-eyed monster has been unleashed on steroids in our modern culture. Capitalism has cleverly engineered longing and desire, says The Vagina Monologues’ playwright Eve Ensler[i], tantalizing us with offers of what we might have or who we might become in the future rather than embracing the good of what we have and are today. It is no surprise, then, that envy leaves a trail of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, and perfectionism, just to name a few of its troubling effects.

At root, envy spoils our sense of goodness about ourselves. We feel inadequate. We feel small. We feel unworthy. For women judging ourselves by the ideals of modern society, we find ourselves longing for a better figure, a nicer house, a more appealing partner, more money, more professional success, more talented children, and the list goes on. To make matters worse, under the sway of envy, we feel surrounded by those who seem to have it all and the happiness that we imagine goes with it. Faced with the pressure of such comparisons, what are we to do?

To be honest, most of us take the easy way out: we try to feel better about ourselves by spoiling the good in others. I think this is the real reason why envy is felt to be so deadly. It is one thing to long for what we do not have, but it is something far worse to attack the goodness in others. On a small scale, this dark underbelly of envy is the source of gossip, pettiness, complaining, and all manner of mean-girl maneuvers. On a larger scale, it is the source of political gridlock, terrorism, and imperialism, just to name a few. The quick and easy way out of the pain of envy is to attack what is good even if it means ruining it for everyone.

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

Tearing down is so much easier than building up. It takes years for a business to build a good reputation and one bad Yelp review to tarnish it. Building a house takes grit, perseverance, resources, and time. A single match can destroy it in a matter of minutes. The same is true for people. A rumor can ruin a career or a marriage; an unflattering photo on Facebook, someone’s good name. Negativity is very powerful, and envious attacks make swift work.

But, of course, no one wins with this way of managing envy. No one feels good, nothing constructive is accomplished, and the vicious cycle of deprivation turning to spite keeps going round and round. The antidote to envy can only be found in playing the long game: you must grow yourself by building on the good you already have.

In my book, Wisdom from the Couch, I share a story told about a concert featuring the world-famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman. Stricken with polio as a child, Perlman wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. At this concert, he tenaciously made his stage entrance without any assistance. The audience sat in awe and sympathy, watching him painfully enter and then cross the stage to his chair. One had the sense that the man had overcome enormous odds.

That night like all other concert nights, Perlman tucked his violin under his chin and nodded at the conductor to begin. As he got into the piece—some versions of the story say he was just a few bars in and others say he was well into it—one of the strings of his violin broke. It was a snap so obvious that it couldn’t be missed. Everyone thought that, surely, the momentum of the piece would be ruined, as he would have to stop to replace the string or borrow another violin, no easy task for even an able bodied man.

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

After stopping the orchestra, the conductor looked over to see what Perlman wished to do. To everyone’s surprise, Perlman raised a single finger to the conductor, a sign to wait just a moment. He closed his eyes, clearly gathering his thoughts. Then he opened them, looked at the conductor, and signaled him to go on. The orchestra took the conductor’s cue, and off they went again as if they hadn’t missed a beat. Only now, Perlman was playing on three strings.

Many people believe that this story must be a legend because it is impossible to play a symphonic work on violin with just three strings. But if anyone could, Itzhak Perlman could, right? One can imagine him working his way through the music around the missing string, compensating, adjusting, and improvising. It couldn’t have been the same piece, of course. But it was brilliant, passionate, and beautiful. For the audience bearing witness to such a marvel, it was even better than what they had come to hear.

A local newspaper reported that when Perlman finished playing, the audience sat in stunned silence before leaping to their feet with an extraordinary outburst of applause. It was also reported that after the audience quieted down, Perlman wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

I don’t know whether or not this story actually happened, but I know that, in the psychological sense, it is true. The truth of the story is that Itzhak Perlman is showing us more than his attitude toward music; he is showing us his attitude toward life. He knows the undeniable truth that no matter how hard he may work, he will never have it all. There will always be something missing—whether it is a string on the violin or the ability to walk with ease. But just as there always will be something missing, there always will be something left. Perlman decided to take the attitude that what is left is good and it is enough.

Like a parable, this story can have a big impact if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We will all face adversities in life of one kind or another, some big and some small. And we all know what it means to be lacking something, because that is the human condition. Envy tells us that someone, somewhere has it all—but it just isn’t true. It is everyone’s challenge in life to do something with whatever they have, and the best way to do that is to see the good, be thankful for it, and do something useful with it.

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A version of this essay was published in Womankind, Issue #9, July 2016, and is used here with permission.

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[i] Eve Ensler interviewed by Krista Tippett, On Being podcast, March 5, 2015