Pastries of Envy
I would like to start with a little unsolicited advice to all the new or future moms out there. Never buy assorted donuts. It never ends well. You think you know each kids’ favorite, but trust me, you will get it wrong and it will all end in tears. Our family has had a hard couple weeks due to the death of a family pet. Please allow that to explain the behavior of my daughter in the following story. I believe this incident perfectly illustrates the road from envy to bitterness.
Because of our rough week, I thought the kids could use a little pick-me-up. After school, I presented them with a box of 12 assorted donuts. For one brief shining moment I was a hero in their eyes. Then, I told them they each got one after they finished their chores. My oldest son finished first and grabbed his standard maple. My eight-year-old daughter finished her chore next and went to claim hers, when disaster struck – apparently she had also wanted the maple one! (I always took her for a sprinkles-girl). She found her older brother and completely unloaded on him. “You know I wanted that! I told you I wanted it!” she cried. To which he responded he had not heard her say that. After her brother collected eyewitness testimony proving she had not said anything, she actually admitted she had not verbally claimed it, but… “You saw me looking at it – you knew I wanted it!!!” He responded that he thought she liked sprinkles. “You do stuff like this to me all the time. You know what I want and you take it from me!” She become so upset she ran into his bedroom and tore his basketball poster off his wall. (Again I promise this is not typical behavior for my normally kind-hearted daughter; she had a lot of built-up frustration). She then stormed into her room slamming the door while yelling, “You all just hate me!”. She was completely irrational. I let her calm down for awhile and then went in to speak to her about the incident and deconstruct it a bit. As we walked through her thoughts and reactions, I realized it was the all too common pattern that starts with covetousness and ends in irrational bitterness.
Envy as a Mirror
Envy is unique in its ability to hide and decay our lives internally. We may not even realize we are consumed by it. It keeps women apart with distrust and its competitive nature. It encourages us to hide our failures and strengths from other women for fear we will not measure up. Let’s be honest, we all have women we envy. The mom of five who looks like Gisele, or the woman who runs a NGO while producing concert-pianist children. We can benefit from evaluating our envy, as it can rapidly descend into other vices of resentment, anger, and self-justified malevolence. Women who are consumed by resentment have difficulty seeing the world as it really is, as well as putting their best-self forward for the good of their children.
From the very foundation of mankind, Envy began its destructive work. Dr. Jordan Peterson speaks of the rapid descent from jealousy to Hell which Cain pioneered for us all – ending in the killing of his brother, Abel, who was the “ideal”. JP says, “If you destroy your own ideal – which you do with jealousy and resentment and the desire to pull down the people who you would like to be, let’s say, then you end up in a situation which is indistinguishable from hell.” So let’s break down this descent, the same one that sent my daughter storming into her bedroom with the belief that “everyone hates me”. Let’s see if we can stop it in ourselves before it becomes a monster.
An Abundance of Scarcity
A lot of women’s resentment may stem from a deeply-held belief that there is inherent scarcity in the world. Jealousy is different from envy in that envy covets what others have, while jealousy is the fear that what you have, or may have, will be taken away. We view the world as a place where we must fight to get what limited resources there are before they are gone. But is this really accurate? As the population grows, resources should become more scarce. However, the fact is that people are being pulled out of poverty at a faster rate than ever before in history. Knowledge and innovation grow as more people have access to them. Mothers with multiple children know their capacity to love grows with each additional baby – and siblings’ lives benefit from the addition as well. My daughter knew there was only one maple donut – but there is not a limited amount of wealth, happiness, or love to be spread among the masses.
Rachel, the rightful first-wife and true-love of her husband, was long-barren while Leah produced six sons. Genesis 30:1, “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” I can only imagine the anguish she experienced at the arrival of each of her sister’s sons- guilt for not being happy for Leah as well as a vivid reminder of her own want.
We all have had the experience of the guilt of being envious when something good happens to someone else. Is this partially because we believe we are now less likely to receive such a blessing? JP recently answered a question from a reader who honestly admitted to being consumed by intense envy, but who wanted to “turn this around”. JP advised:, “Figure out how you would like to feel about the world, Let’s assume that you would rather be pleased about other people’s success’ and not envious. Think about why you might be happy about other people’s happiness. It’s not like Happiness is a zero-sum game. Lots of people can be happy at the same time. Do you really want to live a world where other people are less happy? In what possible manner would that be useful and good for you? It might make you feel grudgingly satisfied in a dark way, temporarily, but it is not a good long-term strategy.” 2 minute clip
The 7th Deadly Sin of Covetousness
Os Guinness said, “Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.”
The last of the 10 Commandments, “Do not covet”, is a commandment about our “internal life” and how we frame our own consciousness. It seems comparably simple to control our “sins of the flesh” by avoiding temptation, but to keep ourselves from covetous thoughts seems almost impossible. However, as JP says, it is important to look at our envyings and see where they originate. If we honestly recognize the things we covet and those conditions which light the fire of jealousy in us – we find what we most desire.
I have often proudly thought of myself as not “being the envious-type”. When women are prettier or richer or more popular than me it doesn’t really bother me. For years I have fooled myself into thinking I am not burdened by covetousness. However, I now know I congratulated myself too soon. The truth is, I am not bothered by some of the common causes of envy afflicting women – but that is no virtue – those are not the things I value most; they are not my “ideal”. Years ago, I remember having to shut down Facebook anytime someone would post photos of their international adventures. I resented the fact that I, who love traveling, was stuck in a freezing Notre Dame basement apartment watching babies while my husband got the graduate degree I always wanted. I hid my envy from myself but I see now it expressed itself in my inability to glory in others experiences or achievements. As I started to realize the meaning of motherhood, I found my ability to be happy for others increase.
Author Tim Challies says, “One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most resent. Guinness reminds his readers ‘we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings.’”
For me, the key is to label envy when I feel it, and stop it before it reaches the next stage of progression. If envy begins to consume me then I know I need to look at trying to make progress in the areas in which I am exhibiting envy. Jordan Peterson has helped me see that where my interests direct me, I can make a great contribution to the world. I need not shut those avenues down because of the demands of motherhood. Sometimes I need to take a trip with my husband, or read a challenging book. I try to temper my need for self-fulfillment with patience and a recognition of the preeminence of my current responsibilities as a mom. When I am out of the “little-kid” phase I will have even more time for travel and reading.
The Actualities of Envy
As we acknowledge the things we envy, we can also recognize that those we envy are likely not in reality living the lives of perfection we imagine. I had a bite of the maple donut and it was nothing to write home about. Everyone’s life has tragedy. The perfectly-put-together mother might in fact have depression; the world-traveler may contract cancer in four years. As JP often reminds us, “Life is often suffering” and if we get respite from that we should enjoy it because “the flood is coming.” Perhaps, if we saw the full reality of people’s lives we would not begrudge them those bouts of happiness and success when they come.
Envy is rooted in the other “internal sin”, pride. A focus on self will always lead to comparison – the fuel for pride and envy. C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.” Pride is feeling superior for having more than others and envy is disdain for those who have more than you. Envy is competitive. Women can find competition threatening, we would rather cooperate. Women need unity; we need to feel we are working together for a common goal.
Assuming the Worst in our Fellow-woman
As we progress from covetousness to envy, we reach the point where we can really start misconstruing reality – we start resenting others. My daughter went so far as to imagine her brother knew her internal thoughts. “He saw me looking at it, he KNEW I wanted it!”. Now I don’t believe the average woman lets her envy run to the point of intense resentment toward an innocent mom trying her best. However, envy can have an ugly descent. It can bring bitterness and anger into our lives as we start reshaping reality after its own design. This is where current “Social Justice” causes can turn ugly, as they single out entire races or genders as “oppressors”. Consumed by resentment, we assume the worst intentions in others and believe all their gains were ill-gotten.
One of our biggest mistakes is assuming people are thinking about us at all. As the saying goes, “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do. ” My son was not thinking of how he could upset my daughter; he was thinking “Yum, donut.” It is rarely the case that someone is intent on your destruction. They are too busy trying to navigate away from their own.
My husband is South African, so my children are biracial. People ask me if we have had any incidents of racism. The fact is in our 12 years of marriage, living in 6 states, we have not had any such experiences. Now, I am not saying people haven’t had racist thoughts towards us or even that we haven’t been treated differently than other couples, however, we have not noticed or remembered it. You will generally find that which you are looking for, and we have no desire to look for racism. If we took the time to analyze every new acquaintance for signs of bias, or compare my children’s treatment to that of other children, perhaps we could dig up some evidence. But why would we go to that trouble? Why not live our lives unburdened from such inquiry?
Victimhood – Perhaps Justified but Not Advisable
The truth is we are all victims, as a powerful clip from JP below shows*. We all have reasons to blame Being (Life) itself. However, instead of doing this, JP advises, “Look to yourself first, before you criticize Being”. If I teach my kids that they will be treated unfairly because of their race, they will have every excuse to see the bad in others. Why would I want to burden my children with such perceptions? I am not denying that there is great injustice in the world. Some racism is so blatant it is difficult to ignore. Some people’s lives are full of so much malevolence, how can they possibly rise above it? Those are deep questions and not something to go into now. However, there is great power in trying to elevate yourself above the level of victimhood. I love the movie ‘Life is Beautiful’. The movie depicts a Jewish man during WWII taken to a concentration camp with his son. Wanting to shield his child from the horrific injustice and malevolence of their situation, he pretends it is all just an orderly game. Even as he is marched to his death, for the sake of his son, he pretends it is just part of the funny contest. Now, of course, this is an extreme and fictional example, but as mothers, we could ask ourselves in those moments of seemingly understandable resentment and envy – if I let this go, will my children and I be better off?
If we decide to allow our envy and resentment to run our lives, we can descend into a “justified” revenge against the perpetrators of our injustice. My daughter felt justified in destroying her brother’s poster. That same “righteous indignation” amplified exponentially resulted in the killing of millions of successful farmers in the Ukraine – perceived to be selfishly profiting off the labor of the poor. We also should remember JP’s Rule Six, “Set your House in Order Before you Criticize the World”. Where do we fall in terms of being a perpetrator of our own misery? Is our resentment really directed towards the proper perpetrator or are we shifting the blame away from ourselves? In our own lives as wives and mothers, resentment may exhibit itself as the endlessly snippy communication we exhibit with our spouse, or our unwillingness to invite our mother-nemesis to book club. If we keep going on this path, we will be plagued with guilt. Deep-down we know we haven’t done all we can to make our situation better. We know we may be misrepresenting the part others have played in our misery. And even if we are fairly judging others, we know that holding onto resentment is self-destructive.
As I sat down with my daughter, we walked through the experience. She said she felt bad for how she misrepresented her brother and for tearing his poster. She admitted that she acted irrationally and she asked her brother’s forgiveness and he freely forgave her. As she hugged him, I saw her bitterness melt away and she went about her day a new girl. I think her episode was simply a result of pent-up emotion and tiredness, but I believe the solution to her envy is the same as it has to be for us.
We need to look honestly at our envy and our resentments.* We need to admit that some of our perceptions may be faulty – perhaps the object of our envy does not have the life we think, perhaps the world is not out to get us, and perhaps we are not justified in our bitterness. But just as we would deal with a bad habit, we should not attempt to stop it with our own will-power, but to replace it with something more powerful. If we fill our lives with meaning and an attempt to elevate ourselves and our family, we need not ruminate on the lives of others. Also, if we find ourselves jealous of another’s accomplishments, perhaps we could make a concerted effort to gain compassion for that person. Pray for them, get to know their struggles, begin to see them as a fellow Child of God with unique talents as well as weaknesses. Instead of an idol for worship or disdain – allow them to become a real person, and one deserving of love.
Starting this blog has been a wonderful experience for me as many extremely accomplished and intelligent women have contacted me with impressions and suggestions. I am not threatened by these women because I believe we share a common goal of spreading the message of “meaningful motherhood”. As we take the competition out of femininity, we open up the door to friendship and cooperation. We can now glory in the successes of others because we realize their success is a net-benefit for the world.
But above all, the cure for envy is dropping the comparisons and instead looking to the true Ideal: Christ (post 2). As we attempt to live our lives oriented towards attaining that ideal, we will be filled with love for others. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” 1 Corinthians 13:4. Let us recognize that we are all daughters of a Heavenly Father, and as such are deeply loved. He has an individualized plan for each of us and will aide us in accomplishing our missions. As long as we keep our eyes fixed on Him, we will feel no need to look at others for a reference. Freed from envy, we can glory in the victories and successes of others.
* This clip (5 minutes) describes how to prevent the ruinous envy of Cain
*Thank you so much for reading and please share, comment, or complain:) I am starting to hyperlink relevant videos into the text to try and keep the posts more concise. If you see a highlighted word you can click it for the reference or applicable video. I am currently working on a short clip collection of JP’s political ideas that can be shared with people hearing mixed messages about his beliefs. Should be up next Thursday. Thanks again.
The First Mourning, Bouguereau, 1888
Leah and Rachel, Jean Francios Portaels, 1862
The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, Carl Heinrich Bloch