Envy is ugly. And selfish.
I should know.
Last week a simple social media post written by a lovely, young Christian woman sent me into a pit of envy for the better part of an afternoon.
If wasn’t her post, of course, which I assume was meant to be innocuous and helpful. It was me. My pride. My discouragement. My envy that lay at fault.
I’ll refrain from reposting what she shared – though my envious self made sure to screen capture it so I could mull over the ways in which it got under my skin. In sum, it was a simple shot of a basket of books, an open daily planner, and a mug of coffee. Sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? A day later, my over-reaction stupefied me.
Yet at the time, it drove me BANANAS! This simple post embodied everything I currently lack in my home and my life: order, beauty, simplicity, quiet, piety. The accompanying description enumerated an additional list of ways (in my mind), I didn’t measure up. My schedule includes no time for structured prayer or study, no housekeeping agenda or workout routine. Nor an upcoming opportunity for a retreat.
When I got to the end of the post, the simple question meant to engage followers tempted me to spew every one of the ways in which I resented this woman’s plan for the day (and my polar opposite non-plan) into the empty, waiting combox. I longed to belabor how her Pollyanna routine, so saccharine and perfect, sickened me.
Thankfully, I’m not completely daft. I knew what I experienced was an unreasonable flash of envy and that it was grounded in vice rather than virtue. I knew better than to fire off a snippy comment that I’d later regret or that might hurt her.
Instead I stewed.
I lost hours – precious hours I should’ve been serving my family or others or actually writing – to an Instagram feed. I scoured all her photos, the post – again and again – dwelling on the details that irritated me. Everything looked perfect – from her straight, white teeth to her figure, exercise routine, husband, baby, and home decor. I searched for something, anything, by which I could summarily dismiss her superiority. Some flaw or deficiency by which I could write off her and her perfect little routine.
The photos rankled like a bristly clothing tag on the back of my neck. Did she have a photographer follow her everywhere? Or was she THAT good at selfies? Is that what her home actually looks like?
I could tell myself that she took thirty selfies to get an acceptable one. That behind the camera there’s a heaped-up mess worthy of a “Hoarders” special event. Of course she’d want to put her best foot forward, especially if it’s her “brand.” I could chalk it up to sudden onset of social media envy.
A litany of excuses for my inferiority followed: She has fewer children. She has more money. A nicer home. And on, and on.
I could appreciate a more self-confident, less self-deprecating style than I prefer without resorting to envy. I could just un-follow and be done with it. Coudn’t I?
Why couldn’t I assume that all she purports is reality and be satisfied? Why should I hope for someone seeking to inspire others to look more like a screw-up to appease my failings?
Why did it bother me so much?
It’s not been a huge struggle in my life, but envy crops up from time to time. More often than not, I’m the one in our home offering the reminder to avoid comparisons. I’ve experienced peace by shunning comparisons about writing, living, and, I thought, every facet of life. There’s a billion non-comparison memes. I should be concerned about me, not others, right? I’d beaten envy.
Boy, was I wrong, as evidenced by the green-eyed monster that reared its ugly head.
What exactly is envy?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church* defines it as such:
2553 “Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.”
How about this passage? No glossing over the hideous nature of envy here:
2538 The tenth commandment requires that envy be banished from the human heart. When the prophet Nathan wanted to spur King David to repentance, he told him the story about the poor man who had only one ewe lamb that he treated like his own daughter and the rich man who, despite the great number of his flocks, envied the poor man and ended by stealing his lamb.323 Envy can lead to the worst crimes.324 “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world”:325
- We fight one another, and envy arms us against one another. . . . If everyone strives to unsettle the Body of Christ, where shall we end up? We are engaged in making Christ’s Body a corpse. . . . We declare ourselves members of one and the same organism, yet we devour one another like beasts.326
Let’s pile on, shall we?
2539 Envy is a capital sin. It refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin:
- St. Augustine saw envy as “the diabolical sin.”327
“From envy are born hatred, calumny, joy at a neighbor’s misfortune, and sadness at his prosperity” (St. Gregory the Great).
So, what’s to be done about it?
2554 The baptized person combats envy through good-will, humility, and abandonment to the providence of God.
2540 Envy represents a form of sadness and therefore a refusal of charity; the baptized person should struggle against it by exercising good will. Envy often comes from pride; the baptized person should train himself to live in humility:
- Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.329
And, of course, there’s time. A day later I looked at the post and shrugged. It’s a mood. It comes, it goes. Sometimes all I need is a reminder that patience is required in different seasons of life.
At any rate, it became clear what I should be doing for Lent. I’d long forgotten to say the daily decade of the Rosary or to get to Friday afternoon Stations of the Cross. For the first time, this year, I hadn’t really given up anything, which was a mistake. I downloaded this little book, and I will work at transforming envy into good-will.
I’ll fix my eyes more firmly on the cross this Lent. Death, after all, is the great equalizer. The green of envy pales as its pettiness is glimpsed through an eternal lens.
* (numbers and notes preserved for convenience)
How do you overcome envy? Do you find social media tempts you to envy more frequently?
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