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Envy and Social Propinquity

Why We Envy Those Closest To Us


“Potter bears a grudge against potter, and craftsman against craftsman, and beggar is envious of beggar, the bard of bard.”

(Hesiod, 8th century BCE)

“Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.” (Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970)

These quotes span 2,700 years, or most of recorded history. There probably is no more important ingredient in the recipe for envy than the degree to which we feel identification with or closeness to the person of whom we’re envious, what social scientists call “social propinquity.”

The word “propinquity” means nearness or proximity. In social psychology, “social propinquity” is a more technical term referring to the effect that physical proximity has on the behavior of two individuals. So neighbors, office mates, travelers sitting next to each other on an airplane, or people riding together in an elevator are all impacted by the patterns of social propinquity. Generally, it is assumed that propinquity – either through more frequent contact, more close physical proximity, or more close sense of personal identification – contributes to a forming of relationship. That is, we will feel more connected with those with whom we have more contact or more in common than those with whom we have less contact or less in common. While this may seem like common sense, it is only because it is so common that it seems like common sense. Lets take a look at some underlying reasons for why this is so and what it can help us understand about envy.

What we will find is that social propinquity as a major factor in breeding envy is simultaneously: a) common sense -- we have to care about someone enough to be able to feel envy and we care about people more the closer they are to us, and b) counter-intuitive -- aren’t we’re supposed to like people who are closer to us more than those who are distant? If so, why does our liking so frequently turn into envy?

The social propinquity factor posits that we must find someone close to us in order for the envy to get percolating. Thus we do not envy Bill Gates’ wealth nearly so much as we envy someone who makes $20,000 per year more than us. If we are a weekend golfer we will not envy Tiger Woods, but we might envy our golfing partner who seems to consistently beat us by a few strokes. Sports rivalries, such as the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees, Berkeley- Stanford or UCLA-USC, are based in part on their geographic proximity, which contributes to the social propinquity. Someone who is too different from us in some fundamental way will likely not spark our envy.

Yet once someone is within the orbit of our social propinquity, this dynamic changes. The greater the difference between us the more intense our envy is likely to be. So we will be more envious of our weekend golfing partner if she starts beating us by 10 strokes instead of two; we will be more envious of our office mate if his Christmas bonus is $500 rather than $250 more than ours. It seems that initially we need social propinquity to latch on to someone as an object of comparison. But once the tractor beam of our evil eye has locked them into our envious orbit, the greater the perceived difference between us, the more intensely will we feel our envy.

My speculations on social propinquity: While there is a lot that could be said about the physical manifestations of envy and social propinquity, I am not going to review them here. I am more interested in the spiritual dimension of this process and that is what I will now explore.

The secular world view is posited on material reality being ultimate reality. As such, the solution to coping with an underlying sense of incompletion when we feel envy is to acquire more in the material realm: make more money, get a bigger house or a newer car, achieve higher status, win more football games. There is an inherent logic in this viewpoint, given its premises. If what you have is not enough to make you feel complete, and all you know is the material, then acquiring more material should fill the sense of incompleteness. And in truth, there is often some kind of temporary relief when another good or honor is purchased or received or when your favorite team wins the World Series.

The religious worldview, which holds that we are non-material souls temporarily housed in a corporeal body, sees this sense of incompletion as the natural experience of an unlimited soul living in a limited material frame in a limited, material world. There is more, we are more, and it is natural and good we should seek to taste this more. It is not an unhealthy envy so much as it is an intimation of a larger reality to be experienced. To seek further material goods or honors is to further alienate the soul from its true source because it is to imply that the solution to a spiritual yearning is to be found in a material remedy. It is akin to buying a homesick child a present to relieve the pangs of homesickness. It may work short term, but if the child is still far from home it is only a temporary balm. Only in this case, the soul is the child, homesick for its felt connection to God.

I want to suggest that the soul is governed by spiritual propinquity, and the nearness it seeks is to God. Proverbs 20:27 says “The soul of man is God’s candle.” Commentators1 explain this in the following way: The flame of the candle is likened to the soul; the wax of the candle to the body. The soul, like the flame, is always reaching upward, trying to escape the confines of the body, while the body both provides the fuel for its burning and keeps it anchored in the material realm. There is always a tension behind these opposing pulls.

The unanchored reach of the soul would result in its complete submersion and self abnegation in God, much as a smaller flame is subsumed in a larger flame when it gets close enough to merge. And this natural gravitational pull upward of the soul toward God and complete immersion is love in its purest form. It is this pure love which is the source of all the stepped down versions of love we experience on the earthly plane, whether it be the urge to merge with another human, with a purchased good, or with an honorific title. It is ultimately non rational, our willingness to give ourselves completely to an other person or thing, but at its core it is the force of love shown by a soul trying to relinquish itself in God.

What I am suggesting is that our envy for those close to us stems, ultimately, from our soul's chafing in the narrow confines of the body and the material world. Our sense of ourselves as "lesser than", our frustration with what we we think we don't have or what we have not achieved, is not a sickness to be cured through more acquisitions or achievement. It is a reminder of our smallness in the face of infinity -- and that we have a spark of that infinity within us.

1See, for example: Zohar 1:83b, in The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 2, translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.32; Zalman, S. (2009), Likkutei Amarim – Tanya (N. Mindel, translator), pp. 77-83. Brooklyn: Kehot. (Original work published 1796); Steinsaltz, A. (2005). Learning From the Tanya (Y. Tauber, translator), vol. 2, pp. 115-131. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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