2013-07-05

Wanting the Cow Dead

A genie pops out of a bottle and sees three people. Since it’s unclear which one of them actually opened the bottle, the genie gives one wish to each of them. The first one says that friend of hers has a cottage in the Cotswalds, and she would like a similar cottage, but with two extra bedrooms, an additional bath, and a brook running in front. The second one says his best friend has a twenty-five-year-old blonde mistress, and he would like such a mistress himself, but a redhead instead of a blonde and with longer legs and bit more culture and chic. The third one is silent. Then he says, “I have a neighbor who has a cow that gives a vast quantity of the richest milk, which yields the heaviest cream and the purest butter. I want that cow . . . dead.”

Envy may be the most hidden of the seven deadly sins. We tend to hide it from others, and from ourselves. When my mind turned to the subject of envy, I was thinking, well, this one I don’t have much. Maybe you have that reaction too – and maybe you really don’t have much of it. Or maybe you and I have hidden our envy from ourselves because, one, it’s pretty easy to hide, and, two, it’s no fun to have.

Envy really is no fun. Envy is the least fun of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony and lust are fun. Sloth is enjoyable. Vanity feels good. Greed can be satisfying, and even anger we speak of as an indulgence. But envy? That’s just no fun at all. It’s not easy being green (with envy) – in the sense that life in that sickly-hued state is difficult and unpleasant.

Envy works basically like this:
“You see something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it. One the injustice of the other person having it is established – this doesn’t usually take too long – his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind. Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying. His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself. Whatever the object of inordinate desire – an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life – the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not.” (Epstein, Envy)
It’s that double-reality that’s insufferable: he has it AND you do not. If you both have it, that’s fine, and if neither of you have it, that’s OK. Envy says there are two solutions: one, you get what they’ve got, ideally in a slightly better version, or two, they lose what they had. Envy doesn’t care which. Of course, there’s a third solution: learn how to not be envious, but Envy won’t tell you that.
“Envy asks one leading question: What about me? Why does he or she have beauty, talent wealth, power, the world’s love, and other gifts, or at any rate a larger share of than I? Why not me?” (Epstein)
The first recorded case of envy is in Genesis, chapter 4:
“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering, he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. . . . Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”
So it's a sin with a distinguished history. Indeed, unless you count eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil among sins to which we are currently liable, envy is the oldest still-practiced sin in the Bible. Followed shortly by murder.

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This is part 18 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 on Envy)
Next: Part 19: "Envy and the Desire for Equality"
Previous: Part 17: "The Real Work"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"