A short while back we read from First Samuel at daily Mass and encountered an envious Saul. Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath the women sang a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but he is resentful and envies David as he hears the song: Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought: “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glarring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants. (1 Sam 18:6-9). His reaction is way over the top but this is what envy does.
What is envy? Unfortunately most people use the word today as merely a synonym for jealously. But traditionally, jealously is not the same as envy.
When I am jealous of you, you have something I want and I wish to possess it inordinately. But the key point is that there is something good about you or something good you have and I want to have it for myself. When jealousy is sinful I want it inordinately or unreasonably.
But in traditional theology envy is very different (cf Summa II IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness or anger at the the goodness or excellence of someone else, because I take it to lessen my own excellence. And the key difference with envy is that (unlike jealousy) I do not want to possess the good or excellence you have. I want to destroy it.
Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David. He wants to do this because he thinks David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul SHOULD rejoice in David’s gifts for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier, and this is a blessing for everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, be thankful to God and, where possible imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead Saul sulks and sees David stealing the limelight from him, and possibly even the kingdom. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.
Envy is diabolical – St. Augustine called Envy THE diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316), since it seeks to minimize, end or destroy what is good. Scripture says By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve had, made in the image of God, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his, or so he thought, and he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is very ugly and it is diabolical.
Examples of Envy – I remember experiencing envy in my early years. Picture the scene. In every classroom there was always one student, sometimes a few, who got A’s on every test. They always behaved, and the teacher would sometimes praise them saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny? (or Susie).” Some hated students like this since they made them look bad. So what did some of them do? They sought to pressure the “teacher’s pet” to conform to their mediocrity. In effect they sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in A student. They would taunt them with names and pelt them with spit balls. If ridicule and isolation didn’t work sometimes they’d just plain beat them up. This is envy. Sorrowful and angry at the goodness of another student, because they made them look bad, they set out to destroy what was good in them.
The Virtues which cancel envy – The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in another is joy and zeal. We rejoice that they are blessed because, when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further we respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate where possible their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or their good example. But envy rejects joy and zeal and with sorrow and anger sets out to destroy what is good.
Envy can be subtle – Envy isn’t isn’t always this obvious. Sometimes it is more subtle and something we do almost without thinking. When someone at work is a rising star, we may easily engage in gossip and defamation to undermine their reputation or tarnish their image. We may do this at times in an unreflective manner. Almost without thinking, we diminish and belittle others and their accomplishments by careless and insensitive remarks. We often do this because we need to knock others down to feel better about ourselves. This is envy. Sometimes we show envy passively by omitting to praise or encourage others or by failing to call attention to their accomplishments.
Envy concealed with a smile – Finally there is an odd form of envy out there that is particularly annoying because it masquerades as sensitivity and kindness. Go with me to a typical neighborhood soccer game or baseball game. The children are on the field and playing their hearts out. But on the sidelines a decision has been made not to keep score. Why? Because the kids little egos might be damaged by losing. Frankly, it isn’t the egos of the children we’re probably protecting here, it is the parents. The fact is that the kids know the score in most cases. But God forbid that on the sports field there should be winners or losers! The losers might “feel bad.” The solution is to destroy or to refuse to acknowledge goodness and excellence in some children, because it is taken to lessen the goodness or excellence of the “losers.” This is envy and it teaches terrible things by omission. First of all it fails to teach that there are winners and losers in life. This is a fact. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Either way I should be gracious. Secondly it fails to reward excellence and this is unjust for excellence should be rewarded and the reward should motivate others to be excellent. Much is lost when we fail to praise what is good.
Another example of this envious practice is at school award ceremonies where sometimes (literally) hundreds of awards are given out. There are the traditional Honor Roll awards but then a plethora of made up awards so that everyone “gets something.” I’ve even witnessed awards given for the nicest smile. But the problem is that when every one is awarded no one is awarded. Once again envy rears it ugly head, but this time it’s wearing a smiley face. God forbid that some kids little ego might be bruised he doesn’t get something. God forbid that someone else’s excellence might make me look less excellent by comparison.
The bottom line is that it is envy: sorrow at someone else’s excellence because I take it to lessen my own. And frankly this isn’t the kids’ issue, it’s usually parents and teachers projecting their own struggle with envy on the kids. But the fact is, there are simply some people who are better than I am a certain things. And that’s OK. I don’t have all the gifts, you don’t have all the gifts. But together we have all the gifts.
Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as misguided kindness and fairness. It diminishes, and often seeks to destroy goodness and excellence. The proper response to excellence and goodness is and should always be joy and zeal.
In Snow White, the wicked Queen had envy for Snow White, the fairest of them all. Considering Snow White’s beauty as a threat to her standing, the evil queen cast a spell on snow white to remove her beauty from the scene. Envy consumes the evil queen.
Painting above by Marta Dahlig