By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's August 2008 column for secular
newspapers, usually 600 word of less and different from his column in
Diocesan Life. The column is sent to newspapers throughout our 14
counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on
the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in eight or
nine additional papers at some point during the month. The combined
circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than
400,000. More than 130 columns have been published over the past 12
years. If your newspaper does not publish the column and you might
consider speaking with the editor about that, please email Bill
Dragging a broken leg on crutches, 12-year-old Brenda was delicately making her way through the classroom. Sarah’s foot shot out. Brenda crashed to the floor. “It was an accident,” lied Sarah.
The truth was, she did not know why she had hurt Brenda. Her parents were shocked. Sarah knew only that it “just came out of me.”
As we talked in the weeks following, Sarah was able to describe the impulse to hurt her classmate. “She is so good at everything and everybody likes her … it makes me hate her.”
Eventually, Sarah used the word jealous, but what was going on for her was a particularly vicious form of envy. Envy is called the coldest of the deadly sins because it destroys the heart of the one caught up in it while also causing harm to others. It was devouring Sarah.
I do not use envy here in the sense of my seeing my neighbor’s car and wishing I had one like that. I think of a kind of malevolent envy that sees the happiness or talents of others as somehow a personal deprivation. It is as though one has been robbed because somebody else has something good.
Sarah saw Brenda’s goodness, talent, and popularity as taking away something she felt she should have but did not. She wanted to be good, gifted, and well loved; but she felt quite the opposite, so she struck out at her classmate.
“It is not enough to succeed,” Gore Vidal once said. “Others must fail.” When other people’s success or happiness makes us mad, we discover why this sin is deadly. It leaves us with no peace.
People driven by, or suffering from, envy are never happy. They usually have nothing good to say about anybody, and live in a world of self-imposed misery. They are stuck, like an infant, in a place of powerless rage when it senses that all good and all nurture come from a mother. Infants are said to sense that they are powerless to produce anything except what infants can produce, and even that is taken away from them at regular intervals. They usually outgrow this. Perhaps the envious do not.
There are several options to consider if one is being consumed by envy. The first is admiration. Admiration says something good about the person who does the admiring: he or she has a discerning eye and good taste.
In the film, Amadeus, Salieri tortured himself over Mozart’s gifts. He complains bitterly that God has gifted Mozart more, and is enraged with God for making him able to understand just how gifted Mozart is. He had the option or realizing that his keen ear was a compliment to him.
Admiration allows us to value what is good in another and turn it into a model for our own behaviors or ambitions. I cannot emulate what I hate. I can, however, work towards becoming some of the things I like in others.
Admiration allows us to see other vessels, resources, and models. But it is not the only way to escape from the trap of envy. There is also gratitude.
We can have gratitude that God has given such gifts at all, and that this or that person lets that goodness show. We can have gratitude that we do not have the burden of being the person who has to bear the burden of being absolutely the best. We do not have to bear the burden of being actually the master of the universe.
Rising above envy is liberation. Admiration and gratitude warm our hearts and allow us to join the human race and be content. I hope that is what happened for Sarah.
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]