Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Things we want

If in comparing myself to you I find you have more, I may feel envy.

Most people, I believe, struggle with envy. We all lack something, and it’s natural to want it and envy those who have it. For some people, it’s someone’s hot girlfriend. For others, it’s athletic ability. For still some others, it’s wealth.

Dennis Prager calls this the Missing Tile Syndrome. No matter how many reasons we have to be happy, we focus on the few reasons we have to be unhappy (i.e., our eyes are drawn to that missing tile).

Properly sublimated, envy can be a blessing. It can motivate us to make positive changes. “By paying more attention to these people, we might learn to emulate some of the strategies that yielded their advantages,” writes John Tierney, citing a joint TCU-UT study on envy.

On the other hand, envy can be a curse, in two ways. It can make us feel inadequate and unworthy of people’s appreciation, friendship, and love. In response, we might withdraw from society. Also, sometimes we channel envy into resentment. We see the people who have the things we lack as coming by them unfairly. Not only does this resentment lend emotional drive to redistributionist politics, it inhibits our ability to get to know people better, and to learn that they, too, have missing tiles, inner demons they struggle with.

There is no cure for envy, only ways to curb it. The reminder that everyone, no matter how outwardly successful, has shortcomings in and of itself provides some solace. This is more difficult than it used to be, as the media constantly bombards us with seductive images depicting the lives we think we ought to have. But those images aren’t real. The real people behind those fantasies lead complicated, troubled lives. Who imagined Tony Scott, award-nominated filmmaker, an expert in crafting seductive images, would kill himself?

Following Jesus’ exhortation to “be perfect” (i.e., always work to better oneself) has an ameliorating effect as well. I’ve always been struck by the “happy warrior” mentality of strong Christian believers. That they are so completely over themselves is, to me, plenty evidence of God’s grace. The things we want are usually just that: things. By turning our focus to being better friends, coworkers, children, neighbors, etc., those things fade into the background. And then something remarkable happens: When you least expect it, what you’ve wanted all your life gives itself to you.

Here are some other sources on envy: “The Origins of Envy,” by Max Borders (also the source of the block quote); and “Life’s Enough: Stop Comparing Yourself to Others,” by Leo Babauta.

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