Envy and the Desire for Equality

Envy is not to be confused with jealousy. One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have. Nor is envy to be confused with generalized resentment. Real envy is personal. You envy a particular person. You don’t envy a class – say, the rich. You may resent the rich, but envy is reserved for a specific person who has gotten richer than you and, you are quite sure, does not deserve it.
“Real envy is reserved not for the great or the greatly gifted, but for those whose situation seems only slightly better than our own.” (Epstein)
We envy people who we see as roughly comparable. I don’t envy LeBron James because I have long since given up any hope of that kind of athletic genius. But another middle-aged minister whose basketball skills clearly exceed my own might trigger a brief, ‘hey, why not me?’ thought. So women tend to envy other women and men tend to envy other men – because we see them as being in a comparable position, and we’d like to do as well as they do.

Envy is also the only one of the seven deadlies to be proscribed in the ten commandments. Yahweh declares himself to be jealous, and forbids us to be envious:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Not a word in the ten commandments, or, indeed, anywhere in the Tanakh – which Christians call the Old Testament – prohibiting the other six. Leviticus, in particular, is filled with page after page of rules, but nothing there forbids gluttony, anger, sloth, pride, or greed. There are a lot of ways your lust cannot be expressed, but there’s no law against lust itself. Coveting, however, that’s not allowed.

Why not? The commandments already say, “You shall not steal.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s house or ox doesn’t lead to stealing it, what’s wrong with coveting it? The commandments already say, “You shall not commit adultery.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s spouse doesn’t lead to that, what’s the problem?

The problem, I guess, is that other side of envy: the side that says, well never mind me getting it, I’ll just make sure my neighbor doesn’t have it either. If your neighbor’s ox mysteriously dies, you haven’t exactly stolen it. Iago doesn’t end up with Desdemona – he just makes sure Othello doesn’t have her either. Iago’s envy and Othello’s jealousy together drive the plot.

Nasty business, this envy.

This, “If-I-can’t-have-it-you-can’t-either” impulse runs deep. In an experiment with chimpanzees, there’s a chimp in a cage, there’s a table of their favorite foods outside the cage. The cage is on wheels and the chimp can reach out, grab the edge of the table and pull it over and get the food. There’s also a rope attached to a couple of the table legs. Pulling on the rope causes the table to collapse and the food to roll away, irretrievably out of reach. Now put two chimps in side by side cages. They can both reach the table, and they each have their own rope that can collapse the table. As long as they pull the table closer to where they both can reach it and share the food, all was well. But if one chimp pulled the table over toward himself out of the reach of the other chimp, then the aggrieved chimp would often pull the rope, collapse the table and thus ensure that neither of them got the food.

Often. Not always. Some chimps have the “if I can’t have it you can’t either” impulse stronger than others. It’s the same with their cousins, the humans. And it’s a good thing. We need people who care about equality just for equality’s sake – even when that sometimes means taking away something from someone else with no tangible benefit to anyone.

That’s a strange thing to say. But even though there may not seem to be any benefit in one particular instance, over the longer haul there may be. The chimp who pulls the rope to deny food to another chimp gets no benefit THIS TIME. But next time, the greedy chimp will be more likely to share. Maybe in some circumstances we know that there will be and can be no next time, but our emotions are wired the way they are from millions of generations dealing with situations in which there were next times.

An important detail that I didn’t mention is that when a deprived chimp does pull the rope to say, “fine, then neither of us is getting any food,” that chimp doesn’t just quietly pull the rope, as if the collapsing table might have been some unfortunate accident. Oh, no.
“When the table rolled away from them, the annoyed chimps exploded in rage, turning into screeching black furballs.” (Ariely)
They are very loud about communicating a message for next time: treat me fairly. The roots of envy lie in an impulse to insist upon equality because even though there may be no benefit to you this time, you increase your odds of better treatment next time. Without that impulse, we’d never have developed as much fairness as we have.

Life isn’t fair, but it’s a good thing for human beings in their dealings with each other to try to be.

* * *
This is part 19 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 on Envy)
Next: Part 20: "Upsides of Envy"
Previous: Part 18: "Wanting the Cow Dead"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


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.

* * *
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"


I Pray Thee: Pray

We need a Unitarian Universalist theology of prayer, because, for many of us, what we learned in childhood about what prayer is doesn’t make sense to us anymore, so we don’t pray.

Prayer is not about asking for stuff with any expectation that it will magically appear. Prayer does not require believing in a personlike entity or committing to the notion that reality-as-a-whole knows or desires.

It does help to address the prayer to something other than yourself, though it’s fine if you understand this as merely a device to help you hear yourself better – like beginning your journal entries with “Dear Diary,” as if you were writing to a pen-pal. It’s a good device – helps you really do it, slow down, complete your sentences, present yourself without the shortcuts habitual to our rushing thoughts.

So that's part one: imagine reporting to someone whose judgment you need not cajole, who will never hold against you whatever you say, and whose sympathy is assured. Maybe you’re sure there’s no one there, or maybe you suspect it. That’s fine. Pretend. Role-play. It's good to excercise the imagination. Knowing when to go ahead and play make-believe and burst the bonds of the literal and prosaic -- and when to return to those bonds -- is the better part of wisdom.

You can address the prayer to "God," "Goddess," "Jesus," "Mary," "Avalokitesvara," "Vishnu," "Thor," "Ghosts of my ancestors," "Saint Francis," "Reality," or -- the two I most frequently invoke -- "Ground of being," or "Source of healing and wholeness called by many names." You can address your prayer to an imaginary person you name "Hilda," or "Cuthbert." In some ways it does matter whom you name as your addressee in prayer, so try out various possibilities to see what resonantes best with you. As far as whether or not you actually are praying, it doesn't matter how you name your (imagined) listener. Put "Dear" in front -- or don't -- as the spirit moves you.

Kneeling is good, though by no means necessary. Kneeling tells your body, "we're doing something a little different from the rest of life now." It helps the body take seriously what you're doing -- and the body, after all, runs our lives a lot more than the thin layer of upper cortex that likes to believe it's in charge. It also seems to help to look either down or up.

Prayer is about caring enough about life – yours – to check in with it, see how it’s doing. The purpose of imagining you are reporting to something outside yourself is to discover what you say.

Then begin. So what do you say? What goes in part two, the "body" of the prayer?

Anne Lamott’s latest is a little book about prayer, and the title is three words that say it all:

Help. Thanks. Wow.

That’s it. Help. Thanks. Wow. To take up a practice of prayer means that you’ll regularly say those three things. You’ll say them to yourself, and in private, because prayer is not for display.

Sometimes you say, “I sure do need some help. I don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes you might be specific about the sort of help you’d really like, and that’s where the idea of prayer as asking for things comes from. But the point isn’t to ask so you can get it. The point is to ask so you can hear your own heart’s yearning – and thereby reveal to yourself also an option of maybe letting it go. Maybe.

Sometimes you say, “Thank you. Thank you for a day of sobriety, for my granddaughter, for the blossoming azaleas.”

And sometimes you say: “Wow. I’m stunned. I might or might not also be grateful, but mostly right now, I’m stunned. I gasp. The song of a bird, an image of war, the massive scale of poverty, the infinity of the cosmos. Wow.”

Wow is what you say when you look at the ocean for the first time. I will always remember a story I heard the first year I was serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida. It seems that a member of the congregation had a relative who had reached the age of 80 and had spent her life in the same north Alabama town in which she was born. She had never seen the ocean. So the family got together and planned the trip so she could see ocean. The elderly relative was brought out to the beach, and she gazed upon the ocean for her first time: this vast expanse stretching to the horizon in 180 different degrees of directions. She said, “I thought it would be bigger.”

That story is so memorable because it’s so funny, and because I can’t wrap my mind around how the ocean could not be a “wow.”

Help. Thanks. Wow. Saying it helps us know we mean it, that’s all. It helps us become self-aware, which we rarely are. A regular practice of prayer changes us, but it changes us so slowly that it’s easy to think nothing is happening, it’s not doing anything, it’s pointless. As the years wash up like waves, the habit of daily prayer gradually yields up its fruit of self-awareness.

You know who you are – really know. You know where you fall down and need help. You know what you love and are so grateful for: those are your resources are for getting back up. And you know you’re alive in a world of wonder.

It’s one thing to have a moment of irritation, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear. Such feelings, too, are threads in the fabric of the wonder of life. It’s another thing to nurse such a feeling like a grudge, to run a cognitive loop to tell myself over and over not just that I’m having the feeling, but how justified I am to have it. Every time I want to cling to my own crankiness, wield it with righteous conviction, I am forgetting who I am. Saying help and thanks and wow gradually gets me where I’m quicker to remember again.

Then, at the end, part three: say, “Amen.” Or say, “and so it is,” or, “truly,” since these terms are translations of "amen." Also popular: "Blessed be." All these endings underscore that prayer is not about wishful thinking, but about being in touch with things exactly as they are in your heart. It's about blessing what is -- even if "what is" is your own desperate need for help.

Help. And so it is.

Thanks. Truly.

Wow. And so it is, truly.


The Suffering of Job: From Aww to Awe

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are. Love opens the door of awe and wonder – and that, too, is always right here.

In the Biblical book that bears his name, Job suffers. “Why do I suffer?” he cries. He is visited by friends who offer trite moral simplifications that leave Job still crying, "Why do I suffer? This isn’t fair. I don’t deserve it."

Finally, God Godself appears to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. Here’s a sampling (which includes readings #424 and #427 in Singing the Living Tradition):
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (38:4)...Or who shut in the sea (38:8),...made the clouds its garment (38:9)....Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place? (38:12)...Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? (38:18)...Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (38:22)...Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? (38:25-31)...Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? (39:1)...Do you give the horse its might? (39:19)...Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (39:26-27)
How does any of this answer Job’s question? How does any of this explain why there is unearned suffering, why bad things happen to good people, why children die, why baby birds’ lifeless bodies are found on the sidewalk, why life hurts? I’ll tell you: it doesn’t.

Yet confronted with the vast awe of creation, Job is humbled and speechless. He abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice. Job doesn’t get an answer to his question about why there is unearned suffering. What Job gets is awe. What Job gets is a filling full of awe at the magnificence and majesty of creation. Job doesn’t get an answer. Instead he gets a sense of the smallness of his question.

Before the grandeur of this life and world, our complaints are puny indeed. Awe means being in touch with the wider context of our lives, the vast beauty of life and the world. Awe is the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exist always within a wider context of beauty and wonder.

Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928)
The experience of awe enables us to act for fairness and social justice, and let go of attachment to results. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez is a deeply committed advocate for social justice. At the same time, Gutierrez notes in his discussion of Job that:
“emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God's gratuitous love.” (96)
We might prefer to say the gratuitous grace of being alive. Only within the vast and mysterious gratuitous grace of being alive is revealed the value and ultimate meaning of working for justice. Gutierrez is talking about awe – for when we experience the wonder of creation deeply and personally, it feels like an awesome gratuitous love.

Let the awe Job experienced hearing the voice of reality from a whirlwind be always with you. Let the love we share be always with us. And so it is. Truly.


Kick the Bucket List

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are.

The 2007 film, “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman further popularized the idea of having a list of things to do or places to go before dying – before "kicking the bucket."

Dear friends, this is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Don’t make that list, and if you have one, throw it away. The measure of a life is not the length of the list of things done once, but the integrity of things done over and over, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, until they radiate with beauty and grow fresher with each repetition.

Too often have I said, and heard, “been there, done that” – as if everything in the whole possible conceivable world was worth paying attention to once, at most, and never again. Go back to that place you have been and that thing you have done because last time you were there you didn’t stay. Go back to what you do know, but live as if you’ve forgotten. Touch that familiar cloth, and the electric jolt of mad implication:

This is it. All of it. All of it right here. There is nowhere to go except here.

When Ecclesiastes said there is no new thing under the sun, it meant that that's because all things are always new beneath this sun. So hanker not for the fresh and new but open your eyes to the wonder that is always before you.

Let us be a countercultural people, standing counter to the consumer culture exerting all its might to entice us to buy new experiences, a consumer culture that would sell water to a fish if it could, for we are as immersed in constantly shifting new experience as a fish in the ocean.

Do you want to change the world? Congratulations, you have. Each of us changes the world every day, and is changed by it.

Nothing could be more abundant than brand-new, fresh, never-before experience. Forget about making a list of the ones you want, and notice the amazing ones you have.

If religion is a way of living, an approach to life, the film “The Bucket List” is bad religion. For good religion in film, I would mention “Ground Hog Day.” Presented with the exact same circumstances every morning, Bill Murray makes each day different by how he responds to it. He learns at last to live in the moment and finds that when he does, his life becomes one of compassion and joy – right there in the same old small town, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are.