Envy is a Disease

“A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” – Proverbs 14:30

Renaissance painter Giotto's depiction of envy.

Renaissance painter Giotto’s depiction of envy.

While not the most violent passion, envy decays the soul more than perhaps any other vice. Envy is not only a longing for what someone else owns (because emulation can be constructive), but a resentment of those who are perceived as superior. Envy is almost always a private enmity, and a particularly shameful and ugly one. Most of us will admit to annoyance, anger, hatred or arrogance before admitting that we are jealous of another person. Admitting to envy is not simply confessing a sin; it is demeaning oneself and accepting inferiority to the resented person. This is nearly unthinkable to us when we have caught the disease. And so it stirs itself within us, choking our hearts and making life unpleasant, often breaking out all at once into hot, unsatisfying anger.

Envy seems most often to come between people who are close. When I was a Mormon missionary for two years, I spent all my time with assigned companions. In some ways missionary companions are more attached than are married couples; whereas spouses usually have separate lives during the day, missionaries do everything together. Feelings of envy arising from relatively mundane situations are intensified by this closeness. A missionary notices if his companion seems better liked by the people being taught. Compliments given to one and not the other can be wounding.  It is easy in these situations to be inclined to sulk, to quietly tear down your companion, or to intentionally act like a poor missionary, hiding one’s imagined inferiority behind obviously feigned incompetence. It is difficult completely to be free of these feelings, and I admit to struggling with them a great deal. The best treatment I found was to pay genuine compliments often to my companion.

Like many social diseases, envy spreads to affect nations and groups. In 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War, Winston Churchill called socialism the “gospel of envy“. While his statement was ideological, he perceived a psychological truth beneath the worldview that was spreading from the Soviet Union to much of the rest of the world. In Marxist theory, politics and history were nothing more than a struggle between rich owners and poor laborers. And it was characterized by its resentments more than its goals: one could be a Marxist without promoting constructive social policies, but one could hardly be a Marxist without hating capitalists (and by extension Western society). The violence that always accompanied socialism and communism burst at least partly out of this materialist envy.

The envy has not gone away, however. Modern economies are not immune; invidious desire drives much of the hyper-consumerism that has hollowed out our civilizational identity. In American politics, both social democrats on the left and populists on the right are afflicted. Hostility in the Middle East cannot be diagnosed simply, but perhaps Israel would attract less hatred if it were as poor as its neighbors, instead of the most prosperous country in the region. And perhaps more fundamentalist hatred would be directed at China, which oppresses Uighur Muslims, if it were the superpower instead of the United States.

In politics as well as everything else, more attention is given to arrogance than envy. Arrogance might even be more common than its jealous twin. But arrogance is more quickly spotted and corrected. It is simpler to humble someone than to compel them to admire without resentment. Only the person afflicted with envy can do anything to heal themselves. I have often found that my accusations of others’ arrogance were more a reflection of the disease of envy that was in my own heart.

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