Don’t Believe Everything You Think. A Consideration of Distorted Thinking and the Spiritual Life

062313In my work as a spiritual director, and also in deliverance ministry, as well as in my own experience of growth, it is very clear that there are common patterns of distorted thinking that disrupt spiritual growth and cause distress and disorder. These cognitive distortions lead one to misinterpret, or to over interpret the data of the world and to live in a kind of unreality, or exaggerated reality.

But of course holiness and wholeness presuppose what scripture calls a “sober mind” (cf 1 Thess 5ff; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8; Titus 2:2ff; among many others). Romans 12 exhorts us:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:2-3)

Many sinful attitudes, fears, resentments, aversions and anxieties come from distorted thinking. These patterns emerge from our flesh but are also open doors for demonic influence as demons can exploit and further twist our experience of reality. The world too is able to exploit cognitive distortions both for profit and for influence.

The renewal of our minds is a key aim of spiritual direction, deliverance ministry and of overall spiritual growth. Hence, learning to recognize and name the more common forms of distorted thinking, also called cognitive distortions. Learning their “moves” we can begin to have mastery over them and begin to experience greater freedom and authority over our thought life. And, since most feelings come from thoughts, our emotional life will also be in greater repair. This includes having greater authority over and freedom from anxieties, resentments, anger, paranoia, and depression.

Lets take a brief look at some of these cognitive distortions and see their moves and bad fruits:

1. Overgeneralizing – The frequent tendency to think that a negative situation is part of a constant cycle of bad things that happen. People who overgeneralize often use words like “always” or “never.”

For example, a person might think: I had plans to go to the movie with friends, but the plans fell through. This always happens to me! I never get to have fun!

The more likely truth is that such a person does have enjoyable things in their life. And, like most other people, there are also disappointing moments. Life is a mixed bag. But, at the end of the day, most people have far more blessings than burdens.

Everyday ten trillion things go right and a few things go wrong. This is not an exaggeration when we consider that every function of every atom, molecule, cell and organ is a blessing and a success. Further, most every part of every system on this planet is up and running in a functional way so as to sustain our life. Things we seldom think about are taking place at every moment: photosynthesis is supplying oxygen, millions of ecosystems are running in symbiotic harmony, the Van Allen belts in the upper atmosphere are deflecting harmful radiation from the sun, the gulf stream and weather patterns are distributing warmth and rain, etc. Beyond the earth, Jupiter and Saturn are catching comets, the asteroid belt holds a lot of other space debris at bay, the sun is stable, and our earth has an orbit that is only 3 degrees off from a perfect circle, ensuring that the warmth of the sun is fairly even throughout our orbit.

The list could go on. But we ought to avoid overgeneralizing and exaggerating about how bad things “always” happen to us, and good things “never” come our way. This is not reality. It is not sober thinking. It makes us negative, fearful and anxious. It is not of God and has its origin in the sinful drive of ingratitude. There is much (ten trillion+) for which to be grateful for on any given day, even when certain disappointments have come. We need to embrace reality, and the reality is that overgeneralizing about negative outcomes is neither real nor balanced.

Satan can surely tap into this distortion to stir up resentment, fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. The world too can “cash in” but string up the same negativity and proposing false or incomplete solutions for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Politicians and other organizations can also command too much of our loyalty and have too much power over us by inciting this distortion.

2. All or Nothing Thinking – Seeing things as only perfect or terrible, good or bad, 100% or Zero, with little or no room in between. For example, I am either a hero, or a total loser. Small mistakes are seen as total failure. Perhaps a person on diet slips, and has a large piece of cake, and then thinks, I am a total failure, I just gained ten pounds. There is very little “middle ground” in all or nothing thinking.

There is also the tendency in all or nothing thinking to think that affirming one thing, means denying others. For example, if I say, I like “A” that this therefore means I am somehow saying that B, C and D are of no value whatsoever. But of course that may not be the case at all. Yet, the all or nothing thinker may take offense at the affirmations or points made by others since they see no middle ground, or the possibility that many things can be affirmed and praised at once, or that preferences can be on a continuum somewhere between zero and one hundred.

Indeed, the reality is that most things in life, and most scenarios admit of a kind of continuum of outcomes between all and nothing, 100 and zero. There are often many different outcomes and possible combinations that are both praiseworthy and acceptable. But the all or nothing thinker, because of this cognitive distortion has a difficult time remembering and accepting this.

The result of all or nothing thinking at the personal level is either pride, wherein one thinks of themselves or their performance too highly, or low self esteem wherein one, seeing something less than perfect in their performance deems themselves to be a total loser. There are any number of issues that revolve around anxiety (e.g. performance anxiety) and fear (fear of failure), resentments and depression that set up on account of this cognitive distortion.

At the social level there is often hostility to all opinions that are not 100% in sync with what the all or nothing thinker insists is best. Such people often take offense when none is intended. For example, perhaps someone other than them, or what they think, is affirmed.  They then think that they, or  what they think, is therefore wholly discarded or ridiculed. In this way, all or nothing thinking tends to make people hostile, fearful, thin-skinned and unnecessarily insistent on perfect agreement or outcomes.

It is not hard to imagine how both the devil and the world can lay hold of and tap into this distorted drive of the flesh and hold people in bondage to fear, hostility and many anxious notions that see no middle ground, and no reason to hope. Since the world is not perfect, there is nothing good to celebrate, and those who do celebrate something are dismissed as naive, stupid or worse. The all or nothing thinker presumes that if someone affirms one thing, they “must think it is all good,” which, of course is not necessarily true. But the distortion leads them to scorn and even ridicule people unnecessarily. Thus the evil one easily locks all or nothing thinkers into ever deepening degrees of negativity, hostility and fear.

3. Fortune Telling – Predicting that something bad will happen, without any evidence. For example, a person may think, “I don’t care how hard I have prepared for the talk, it is going to go terribly. People will hate my talk or be bored.”

Essentially this is a form pessimism and negativity that taps into the sin against hope called “despair.” Fortune tellers tend to see the world merely as a hostile place, and opportunities merely as burdens and traps.

But, of course opportunities are not necessarily good or bad, hostile or benign. They are just opportunities.

Further, ‘failure’ is not always total, or even failure at all. The cross was a failure to many who saw it that day, but it was actually victory. Some of my “worst” sermons have had surprising effects. Life is a funny proposition. But the Fortune teller rejects all this and insists that disaster is just over the next ridge.

Sadly, most fortunetellers set up self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting bad things, they usually get it, or can at least collect ample evidence to prove their thesis and be confirmed in their downward cycle of negativity, anxiety, depression, despair, and cynicism.

Satan can easily exploit negativity and the “hunch” that bad things are going to happen. Fortunetellers keep the door wide open to the devil’s shenanigans, practically delighting in his works so as to say, “See, I told you so.”

This negative thinking has to go. It is a distortion that denies the possibilities of every opportunity, and the possibility of paradoxical and surprising outcomes.

4. Emotional Reasoning – Believing that bad feelings or emotions reflect the situation. For example, I feel anxious when I fly, so airplanes are not safe.

Our feelings have the capacity to “damn reason.” We need to be very careful to remember that feelings are just feelings. They ought not be wholly ignored, but neither should they be the deciding factor. Many of our feelings are simply wrong and rooted in traumatic or powerful events of the past.They may not in fact reflect the current reality. That I feel unsafe does not mean I am unsafe. That I feeling bad about a meeting does not mean it was a bad meeting etc.

Once I was walking with a friend and a dog came running up to up. My friend, who had once been bitten and infected by a dog was afraid. But I had grown up with dogs and could see that the dogs was lumbering up to us to greet us, not attack us. Both of us were looking at the same data, and both of us had different feelings. I was right, there was nothing to fear. The dog came an sniffed my hand and wagged its tail. No harm.

But the point is that the feelings were not the reality, they were just feelings. Mine happened to be right, and my friend’s were wrong. But neither set of feelings changed the reality.

Here too, Satan and the world can easily exploit feelings to make us think things that are not necessarily so. An important part of spiritual growth is learn how to discern feelings, and seem them as part of the picture, not the whole picture.

5. Mind Reading – Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking, without any evidence. For example, My friend didn’t stop to say hello. She must be angry at me. Well, perhaps, or perhaps too she was in a hurry, or maybe she didn’t even see you or know you were there. Or, My boss cast a negative glance at me, he is upset and I am going to get fired. Maybe, or perhaps as he was looking in your direction he remembered something he forgot to do, or an argument he had with his wife. Perhaps too he had gas pains!

This sort of distortion is often rooted in a form of pride called grandiosity, wherein  we think we are always the main thing on other people’s mind, or the reason they act. I once knew a man who was very paranoid and I would often remind him that people had better things to do with their time than think of him or ways to trip him up.

Mind reading is also rooted in pride because we trust too much that we have command of all the facts and really know what is going on. We do not. This is a distortion. We do well to develop a healthy type of reserve in our conclusions about what others are thinking or about their motives. We ought to ask of God a certain kind of “blindness” that fails to notice so many things we really can’t even understand.

This form of distorted thinking leads to many fears and anxieties that are usually needless and baseless. Satan surely has many doorways through this form of pride and anxiety producing thinking.

6. Mental Filter – Focusing only on the negative parts of a situation and ignoring anything good or positive. For example, I got a lot of good feedback from the conference I led. But one person disagreed with my premise. I guess the conference wasn’t so good after all.

This distortion is similar to number one above.

7. ‘Should’ Statement – excessively telling yourself how you “should” or “must” act. For example, I should be able to handle this without getting upset and crying!

Clearly there are moral parameters that we must observe in our Christian walk. But there are also many other “rules” and norms we demand of our self that are not necessarily reasonable or correct.

In spiritual direction a person will often say, “I should do this or that” And often I must ask, “Who told you that?” Not everything we think we should do, must in fact be done.

And thus we must carefully discern what is really required from us, and what is not, or what is merely optional based on circumstances.

The devil loves “should” statements because he loves to destroy truth by exaggerating it and making it an unbearable burden. It also gives him the opportunity to masquerade in pious clothes.

For example consider the following “should” scenario. “You know, your prayers would be answered if you just prayed or fasted a little more. You really “should”  multiply your prayers and double your fasts.” But this can be very devilish.

First it is devilish because to some degree it is true. We probably could pray more (if we neglected other things). But, that we can pray more, if for example, we never slept, does not me we ought to do so or must do so.

Further it is devilish, because if the devil can sow that the sought that we could or ought to pray more, they we have NEVER prayed enough. And now he has us where he wants us: discouraged, guilty, anxious, and seeing prayer as an increasing burden, and God as a task master.

Finally it is devilish because it suggests that we will get what we want as a result of our efforts, rather than the grace of God.

So, “should” statements can be very devilish. And they are this way because they masquerade in pious clothing and moral duties. But too often should statements are wolves in sheep clothing. There are legitimate duties we have, but do not trust every should thought. Discern carefully.

There are more cognitive distortions we could discuss, but allow these to suffice. Add your own in the comments file.

The life of the mind is very important in the spiritual life. Our thoughts are critical to what we do, how we feel and to our sense of well being and serenity.

Bottom line – DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK. Discern, distinguish, sift and sort. Consider well that God wants to give you a sober mind, that is, a clear mind, a mind that is in touch with reality, not lost in distortions, and unreality. Ask for a sober mind and make the journey.

Video – Maybe our cluttered lives reflect our often cluttered thoughts:

On Sloth and the Noonday Devil

"Hammock nap on patio"  by Michael Nutt from New York, US - David asleep in hammock.  Licensed under C  C BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Hammock nap on patio” by Michael Nutt from New York, US – David asleep in hammock. Licensed under C C BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more misunderstood of the deadly sins is sloth. In the wider culture sloth is often equated simply with laziness.

But sloth has a lot more subtleties than simple laziness. In fact, sloth can sometimes manifest as workaholism and other frantic worldly activities and busyness.

This is because sloth is most fundamentally defined as a “sorrow or aversion to the good things that God offers” such as a moral life, and deeper spiritual fruitfulness etc. There are some who find such things unappealing, and instead of joyfully accepting these gifts, they are sorrowful toward them or averse. One way to avoid God, and to avoid engaging in spiritual practices is to busy one’s self with the world, to dive into career and become a kind of a workaholic. Thus one simply says, “I’m far too busy to pray, or to spend time reflecting, or to read Scripture, or go to church etc. Such a person is not lazy but they are slothful.

Other forms of sloth do more consistently manifest in the form of a kind of laziness. Some people permit themselves to be mired in laziness or boredom, and a kind of tiredness such that they cannot rouse themselves to prayer other spiritual activities.

Yet another form of sloth, a form that is subtler, is a kind of discouragement that sets in once one has embarked on the spiritual path or vocation, and been at it a few years. And thus, one may get married, or become a religious or be ordained a priest, and after four or five years, when the newness worn off, a kind of Discouragement and boredom set in. And this boredom tempts one to think they made a mistake or must leave the path simply because the thrill and newness is gone.

The secular world often refers to this sort of sloth as the “five-year itch.” And usually applies this expression to marriage. And it is a very common thing that after four or five years of marriage, the greatest danger for divorce arises. The same is true of the priesthood and religious life. Four or five years into a vocation is a critical time period. The newness and thrill have worn off and now it comes time for the daily living, without the previous emotional intensity.

CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters has “Uncle Screwtape” explain the slothful discouragement to Wormwood in this way, and instructs his “student demon” thus:

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming….It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing…..[Careful my dear Wormwood], If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt! (Letter 2)

And by this form of discouragement (a subtle form of sloth) one is tempted to give up one’s current course of action and run off to something new and seemingly more thrilling. Grave becomes the temptation at this point to stray from, or end marriages, leave the priesthood or religious life, or some other spiritual course. One is no longer thrilled and excited of the gift that God has given. But now there is sorrow and a kind of aversion to it. This is sloth.

The Desert Fathers of the Church, based on Psalm 91 referred to this type of sloth as the “noonday devil.” (Psalm 91:6 in the Latin Vulgate spoke of a morsu insanientis meridie – the scourge that bites at noon, i.e. the “noonday devil”).

Indeed, most of us experience this noonday devil, at least from time to time, between noon and 3 PM as a kind of sluggishness sleepiness that sets in on us. Many cultures, rather than battle this, have introduced an afternoon siesta.

Whatever the case, shortly after lunch, a sleepiness and boredom sets in. The newness of the day is gone and the day now seems to drag on and cannot end fast enough. The eyes are heavy and one longs to sleep. Yes, the noonday devil is upon us.

And this noonday devil which besets us is also a symbol  of the discouragement that often sets in when one has embarked on a vocation or spiritual path that is no longer new, and now requires the daily work which may no longer thrill. Early afternoon in ones vocational or spiritual walk is a dangerous and tempting time.

One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus (A. D. 345-399) writes as follows:

The demon of acedia (sloth), also called the “noonday demon,” is the most oppressive of all demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour….He makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile as if the day had fifty hours…. Moreover the demon sends him hatred against the place…. and makes him think he has lost the love…. and stirs the monk to long for different places…and to flee from the race-course. (On Eight Evil Thoughts, Acedia)

A pretty clear description of the kind of temptation besets many, both in their vocations and in their Christian walk.

Beware of sloth, beware of the noonday devil. See it for what it is; name it; know its moves. Understand too, that the noonday devil manifests for only a time. If one will persevere through the midday hours of life and the Christian walk, one will also find that the noonday devil eventually departs, as one settles in to a proper and steady rhythm of the Christian walk or vocation.

However mystifying, disconcerting, and discouraging the noonday devil may seem, most who are able to persevere are glad they did, and that they stayed the course.

Always remember, the devil is a liar. Life cannot be and should not be thrilling at every moment, or lived at a 1000 miles an hour. Such a pace and intensity cannot be maintained. Slow, steady and organic growth is ultimately what is best for the human person.

Stay the course and ignore the noonday devil who taps into the subtleties of the wound in our soul called the deadly sin of sloth. Presuming that one has properly discerned the Christian walk and particular vocation, one should trust in the Lord and stay the course.

Whatever the emotional state steady as you go, Age quod agis – Do what you are doing! Rebuke the noonday devil in the Name of Jesus.

A Reflection on the Passion of Anger and the "Miserable Truce" of the Modern Age

We live in a culture that tends to treat anger as a taboo. One common tactic to unsettle an opponent is to accuse them of being angry. It is amazing how easily humiliated and defensive one can make an opponent by using this tactic. Yes, it is amazing how quickly the one accused of “anger” will be thrown off his game and feel the need to resort to denials or euphemisms such as:

1. I am NOT angry! (which is usually said angrily and is usually a lie).
2. I am not angry, I am just frustrated! (But frustration is a euphemism for anger, yet, as a euphemism it somehow feels less humiliating).
3. I am not angry…You’re the one who is angry! (and thus the terrible charge of anger must be denied and shoved back, instead of owned and appreciated as an energy or passion for what matters).
4. Of course I’m angry, but who would not be angry when talking with an idiot! (And thus the charge is only tacitly or partially accepted since its cause is purely extraneous).

Rare indeed in the American setting is someone who will respond in a way that both admits anger and owns it as something positive and important, perhaps by saying: “I am angry. And I am angry because I really care about this matter. I am not merely a neutral observer. I fully admit I have an agenda, an agenda I passionately believe in, and I experience grief and anger when what I value is dis-valued. Yes, I am angry, and I care about this.”

Of itself anger is just a passion, an energy that is stirred forth when we sense that something is wrong. Sensing what is wrong or threatening, our anger is stirred, energizing us for action, whether mental, physical or both. The body is actually involved as adrenaline is released.

The Bible does condemn vengeful anger but also teaches of anger that is not sinful: Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26). The sinless Jesus also exhibits a lot of anger (e.g. Luke 11; Mark 10; Matthew 17:17; Matthew 21:15; Matthew 26:8; Mark 10:14; Mark 14:4 John 2, John 8, inter al) and indignation modelling that anger is sometimes the appropriate response.

Yet somehow we are stymied and easily felled by the charge that we are angry. We tend to live in egotistically soft, thin-skinned times. The pervasive relativism seems to require that if we are going to believe in something we ought not hold it too strongly, because then we might have an “agenda” and actually let slip that we think there is a truth to be upheld and insisted upon. And, according to modern “rules” having an “agenda” i.e. thinking certain things are surely true, is Wrong, with a capital “W.” Perhaps too there is the over-appropriation of tolerance, an necessary component in a pluralistic setting, but not an absolute virtue.

Whatever the causes, anger, an ordinary and necessary human passion, is humiliating to most modern westerners. And to be accused of being angry is something most try quickly to squirm out of.

And yet I will say plainly, we need more of it. I do not speak of a mere fisticuffs rooted in violent outburst or of the simple ugliness and persoanl disrespect evident on blogs and issued from the anonymous safety behind the computer screen. But rather, I speak of an anger rooted in love and a deep commitment to the truth, an anger that emerges because we see the harm caused by lies, deception, error, sin and injustice.

Lovers fight, lovers get angry, and well they should, for when love is in the mix, things matter, truth matters, error and harm matter. Lovers want what is best, not merely expedient or convenient.

Author Dale Ahlquist, says a lot of this better than I can. Writing in his recent book, The Complete Thinker where he synthesizes the thought of G.K. Chesterton Ahlquist says:

Chesterton illustrates the point about “the twin elements of loving and fighting”…..Modern philosophies have tried to do away with this paradox…But fighting and loving actually go together. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it….To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all…

The connection between two such apparent opposites points to the idea that truth is always an amazing balancing act….If we lean too far in one direction or the other, we lose our balance. Thus, both militarism and pacificism represent a loss of balance.

Militarism is simply bullyism, the strong having their own way. Pacifism is a lack of loyalty, a promise not to defend the innocent, the helpless, the defenseless.

The Church has always had to maintain the precarious balance of truth, whether in war or in anything else….

Sometimes the only way to stop the fighting is to fight. Sometimes the only way to end a war is to win it—but only as an act of defense, not as an act of aggression…..

The sword is an important symbol of Christianity. It is not only in the shape of a cross; it is the scriptural symbol of truth, which cuts both ways—because error comes from opposite sides.

Chesterton also says he likes swords because “they come to a point”, unlike most modern art and philosophy.

Yes, lovers fight, lovers get angry. And the anger of the Greatest Lover of them all, God, is evident in the downward thrust of the cross into the soil of this world and its manifold lies and half truths. The cross is the downward thrust, like a sword, of God’s non placet to the rebellion and error this world holds so arrogantly.

And yet, that downward thrust is also open in love as seen in the outward arms of cross, the outstretched arms of Christ. At the very center of the cross where anger and love unite is the heart of Christ.

Yes, love and anger are closer than we moderns will often admit or fathom. Love says there are certain things worth fighting for and being angry about. But its anger is not egocentric, it is other-centric, focused on God, the truth and the dignity of those who are meant to walk in truth. Ahlquist says, in loving our enemies, we want to convert them so they are not our enemies anymore. Ultimately, we want to get our enemies to join our side.

And thus, some things are worth fighting for and about. Ahlquist continues:

No sane man has ever held, that war is a good thing….But the… occasion may arise when it is better for a man to fight than to surrender….War is not the direst calamity that can befall a people. There is one worse state, at least: the state of slavery.

While a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace.

[And thus the] Church on earth is called the Church Militant. War is a metaphor, and it would not work as a metaphor if it were not a reality, a reality that we have to live with.

This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce.”

And that last line is a very telling description of the modern age: a miserable truce. Everyone is walking on eggs, afraid to offend and suppressing the truth on account of this fear. And thus our anger gets suppressed, renamed, and turned inward. Some has said that the definition of depression is “anger turned inward.” Not a bad diagnosis of a time like this when vast percentages of us are on anti-depressants and other psychotropic medicines to manage the “miserable truce” that is the false peace of these times; a peace rooted not in truth, but in the compelled silence of PC, euphemisms and thinly veiled politeness.

Perhaps too that is why such ugliness erupts from time to time, especially in more anonymous settings like blog com-boxes where we, who have forgotten how to have a good argument in person, or how to manage and appreciate our anger in normal ways, act so ugly and engage in sometimes savage and unkind personal attacks.

This sort or anger, often evident in political settings as well, is not about truth or love, it is about scoring, it is about winning with little regard to truth or love. But the Church militant without love is not the Church.

At the end of the day, though, anger has its place in the context of love, and decent fights are necessary for those who love. Without a proper appreciation for these, we end up with the gray fog of a “miserable truce” that is the modern West.

Just for Fun:

Envy is THE Diabolical Sin

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