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13 January 2011 @ 03:18 pm

I need to talk about envy for a little while.

I've put off writing this entry for like, a few years now... mostly because it sounds like the kind of Zen psychological fluff-babble that people very easily blow off, but also because I didn't have my thoughts entirely worked out on the subject, and because it's impossible to talk about this kind of thing without seeming wise and all-knowing.  I never like sounding that way.  I used to, but the appeal has grown pretty thin.

This is also a pretty bad day to be doing this, as I shouldn't be using my left hand to type, but I've gone without writing anything for several days, and it's starting to drive me nuts, so maybe I can keep it... somewhat brief, even though that's not my strong suit.  (Having finished it:  I failed to be brief.  Oh, well.  I'm just not the brief type.)

The reason I'm compelled to write this is because I keep coming across this question, phrased in various ways and over various situations, with enough earnest frustration that it seems clear that people don't actually know the answer:  How do I deal with it when someone hurts me?  How do I deal with it when people hurt others?  Where does acceptance come from, and why should it even be a good thing?  What do I DO about this?

We kind of know that a part of growing up means learning how to let go of taking things personally, but very, very seldom does anybody ever talk about what's going on under the surface, HOW it's done, and why.

So I'll give it a try, because I believe I know at least a part of the answer, and that answer involves envy.


Most of you, like me, have probably questioned envy's presence on the list of deadly sins.  Among things like greed and lust, it doesn't seem quite that bad... especially compared to, say, pride, which is just a bloody awful thing (bear in mind, the movie Se7en conflated vanity with pride, which was theologically completely wrong -- to commit the sin of pride is to put yourself in the place of God, a far worse sin than vanity).

Then again, most of the "sins" on that list are kind of oddly abstract.  The deadly sins list isn't about action, it's about having evil mental patterns that create the wrong actions.  That's why they are called "capital" sins in early theology.  This means that they engender other sins.  Lust, sloth, gluttony, we have a hard time taking them seriously because they don't do anything directly; but a mental pattern of sloth, of always taking the shortcut method... a mental pattern of gluttony and lust, of prizing the urges of your body above the cost to yourself and others of satisfying them... these things lead to ruin, etc.

Of course, we all know that.  Everybody can imagine a sequence of events in which lust can ruin a person's life, and not even just because of a legalistic or intolerant society.  There are plenty of ways to hurt yourself and others using sexual desire, and humanity has spent its history committing most of them.  Likewise all the other sins.  Sloth, in the original list, was actually despair... the two really do seem to go hand-in-hand.

It's actually a pretty subtle and well-constructed list; oddly complete in its way.  Most really destructive, horrific actions can be traced to one or a combination of these things, and that's no accident, but this isn't about theology, really.

So let's get back to envy.  What's it doing on there?  Almost everybody agrees that envy's derivative jealousy -- the feeling that you can resent any usage of an object because you own it; usually seen as very bad indeed because the object in question is often a person -- is far more destructive, even when justifiable.  All envy is, is wanting something that someone else has.  Or perceiving that someone else has something you would prefer they didn't.  It happens all the time.

But what envy really is, is an amplifier to negativity.  Envy is an acid poison.  You'll find it at the heart of the worst of human behavior, evil if you are okay with calling it that, the worst of sins, the worst of feelings.  Envy converts lower levels of conflict and escalates them to bloody murder.  It's a terrible, horrible, insidious, invisible thing, and most people don't have a handle on it, or know that they ought to.

Hatred isn't possible without envy.

Delving into that:  hatred usually starts with anger.  Anger is simple enough; a red flag that let's you know that injustice has taken place.  It can take over your life, but anger in and of itself is not bad.  Anger is fire.  Controlled, it's a very powerful force for good.

But if you add envy to anger, you end up with hatred, and here's how:  if you are angry at someone who is rich, when you are poor, especially if they came by it unfairly, that can really fan the feeling of injustice into flames.  Far, far worse:  if you are angry at someone who has power over you, power that you do not want them to have, the helpless feeling can be intolerable.  The anger has nowhere to go, and it has nowhere to go because this person can really hurt you.  More than anything else, you'd love to be able to wrestle that power back from them.  If you get pissed off at someone who has talents and abilities you lack, which is by its very nature an unfair state of being because most talents and abilities are rooted in genetics or other advantages of time or place, the anger can get out of hand very rapidly.

Envious people tend to see others with great advantages as less worthy of fair treatment, because life has already been biased in their favor.  You hear this truth echoed in statements, badly:  "They're just dogging on you because they're jealous."  That's a little emotional gauze padding, intended to make us feel better, but it does very little to address how incredibly wrong and dangerous it is when people treat someone badly because that person is possessed of something they wish he/she did not have.

Take a simple traffic situation.  Someone cuts you off.  You may feel mildly annoyed, or you may feel immediately and horribly enraged, to the point where you endanger yourself and others by driving in a threatening manner in order to let that person know that they have pissed you off.  That anger springs from the very real power that person had over you:  power to force you to swerve or to slow, power to endanger your vehicle and yourself.  You grind your teeth.  How dare they.  If they'd brushed past you on the sidewalk, it wouldn't have been nearly so maddening, because that action, while roughly equivalent in rudeness and time spent, doesn't have the power of a fast-moving metal automobile to force you to yield to the laws of physics or get into very real danger.  You envy that power, you wish they didn't have it.

Road rage is more than anger, it's absolute murderous wrath at every other driver on the road, the willingness to endanger their lives because you are JUST THAT PISSED OFF.  It's a mixture of repeated anger and the injustice of knowing that any one of them has the power to put you into the hospital, and that you'll run into several of them every single day who actually test that power a little.  Those are bad drivers!  They don't deserve to be behind the wheel of a car!

That's envy, wishing they didn't have the ability to drive, wishing they didn't have that power.

And there's nothing wrong with that...  <- See that, there?  Absolutely incorrect.  There is EVERYTHING wrong with that.  That feeling, the feeling of wishing you could take that power and ability away from them, that intense need to get that control back and have it for yourself, is at the root of behavior that can quickly kill you, or worse, turn you into a killer.

When we feel angry at the small and the weak, it tends to blow over quickly, or be tempered by pity.  It's the people who we view as being a threat or a challenge that drive our anger into hatred.  That's why people have been comparing passionate hatred to passionate love for years; because hatred isn't possible without a twisted but very profound admiration for someone.  You only truly hate those whose existence makes your own unbearable, and in order for a person to do that, they must have something you want to take from them, even if you can't have it yourself.  Just so long as they don't.

Why do we feel angry at the opposing political party?  Why throw around invective and hateful speech, why all the mud-slinging?  Check the internet, red-raged political invective is massive and overwhelming; it screams loudly enough to drown out everything else.  Perfectly normal, decent people, who would never get into a fight or fail to feed a hungry dog, will say some of the vilest and most grotesquely offensive things about those on the opposing political line.  It's because political parties are seen as having POWER.  The invective always rages hottest at the party in power for that precise reason; it's not just that some large group of people disagrees with me and wants to control my life, it's that they can.  Politics is about little other than believing that someone else has power that they shouldn't, and that's exactly what makes it a house to some of the ugliest human behavior in existence.  Very few people throw invective at the fringe parties; usually you'll see amused dismissal.  Unless the opposing side has something you feel they shouldn't have, you're just not going to waste the hatred on them.

So many violent crimes are perpetrated among close family or romantic relationships for precisely this reason.  It's the people you care about who have the power to hurt you, and when they do, when they really go down and dirty and tear you a bloody hole, there's simply no way to turn back time and take that power back from them.  It's an absolutely impotent feeling.  People turn to violence and murder, thrashing against that powerlessness, that horrible need for the loved one to not be loved, to not have been so emotionally invested in, to not have been trusted.  We lash out, do terrible things, because what's really bothering us can't be solved.  We can never get that love back.  We envy their having it, we envy their ever having had it, and are desperate to take it from them.

Someone once said that forgiveness is "releasing the hope for a better past".  Letting go isn't just psychobabble; if you give someone power, and they abuse it, you can't ever go back in time and fix it.  There is zero relationship from that urge to reality.

When you feel angry at someone who seems more attractive, more confident, more talented, more able than ourselves... and add envy to the mix, it turns to hatred quickly.  It's not enough to recognize that someone has assets, to envy, you must wish that they didn't have them.  Once you wish that, the moment they do something to piss you off, even if only breathing in your proximity, loathing is one mincing step away.  Why do we love gossiping about the horrible things that happen to celebrities?  Why do we love to tear down the rich?  Why is it so deliciously satisfying?  Why is there zero pity for someone addicted to drugs, if they are wealthy and famous?  Why do we really love to throw that "first world problem" accusation at people we see as "whining"?  Why do we accuse people of whining in the first place?

We do these things when we see misfortune happen to someone whose attributes we covet (wish they did not possess).  We relish their hurts, and move in quickly to kick them again if we can, because it makes us powerful, it makes us BETTER, even if it's fleeting.  So what if we still don't have what they had?  At least they don't, either.  We feast upon our contempt for the pain of others we envy, and feel very righteous about it.  "Why should you get to feel bad?  The world has bent over for you!  You aren't allowed any pain.  You certainly aren't allowed to talk about it.  I'm quite right to call your pain little and ridiculous; I'm a good person for it because I'm calling out an injustice!"  That feeling of righteousness is a pretty nasty kind of evil.  The harm done by people over-emphasizing their pains is really quite small, and generally outgrown without the aid of the helpfully contemptuous (which only makes it worse anyway).

Envy isn't innocent, and it's not safe.  It's invisible poison.  It's a way of justifying deliberate cruelty, and enjoying it, and that will turn you into a person you'd rather not be -- or, if you're fine with being that person, it will at least turn you into somebody that everybody else would rather avoid.  Be very, very, VERY careful justifying cruelty.  Be just as careful with it as you would be with violence.

We've all read and discussed and thought over the notion that some of the ugliest, lowest forms of crime or sin -- things like child abuse, animal abuse, elder abuse, mistreatment of the disabled, the really utterly despicable and loathsome of our worst behaviors -- spring from hating oneself.  These behaviors are often seen as the worst because, whether we phrase it this way or not, we are seeing people attack the powerless.  Deeply rooted in our human consciousness (and maybe cultural training, but it seems pretty widespread, though the crimes affixed to the notion can differ widely) is the notion of fighting fair.  We know that, somehow, hurting a child is not merely the act of someone evil, but the act of someone small... and we have long studied the idea that abusers hate themselves and see themselves as small, too.

So we extrapolate that having a low self esteem is dangerous, but we still struggle with the idea -- really?  Making someone feel good about themselves will prevent the beating of a child?  REALLY?

But a damaged self-image at the heart of tormenting the weak, and we need to take it seriously.  People who commit the lowest and cruelest crimes are those who envy the hardest.  They are the unhappiest, but more than that (and this is the missing link between the sheerly miserable and the violently miserable) -- they covet the happiness of others.  Keep with definitions.  They wish to take the happiness of others away.  They wish that others did not feel safe, or secure.  They wish that others did not feel accepting of their own bodies; they wish that others were not unviolated, they wish that others were not permitted a normal life or family, or the opportunity to heal.  A person who envies the power of a child to annoy may lash out and abuse now and then; but a person who envies that child an unblemished childhood will make their life a hell.

Envy is at the heart of revenge, and bullying, and so many evils it's hard to track them all.  It all comes down, fundamentally, to the sentiment, "Why should you have that?"

Why do you deserve it?

Especially if I don't have it.

When people are different from the crowd, the crowd must engage time and mental energy to learn about and accommodate the difference.  That's what tolerance is, and it's a necessity for a sane community.  But believe it or not, if you are different, people will envy you, because of the energy you are -- through no fault or desire of your own -- taking up.  "Why should I tolerate you?  I didn't want you here.  Nobody ever had to adjust to me.  Why do you deserve that?"

Why should you have that?  Especially if I don't have it.  Why should I be the one to give it to you?  Why should people whose attention and love and admiration I want give it to you instead?  Why do you have those things?  What makes you so special?  Who gave you the right to have problems?  Why do you deserve any compassion from me?  Why can't you just do everything I'm able to do?  Why all the fuss over you?

This is poison.  It kills.  It destroys.  It is cruel.  There is nothing, nothing good about it.

Mark my distinction, here:  you will want the things that others have, sometimes.  Just like you will get angry, sometimes.  But if you cross that line into believing that they should not have what they have, that there is a state of injustice there, that you should have it, you've gone into dangerous territory.

People do fantastic things with envy sometimes.  Revolutionaries work from a sense of injustice, whole societies are overturned by class conflict resulting from VERY understandable envy.  Great and terrible things have been done, but frankly, it's a strangler vine.  You're always working at cross-purposes with yourself and others when you're motivated by envy.  The best person in the world can only go so far with it, and once they have achieved the balance they had hoped for, taking advantage of it is such a near step away that we've seen it happen across the world again, and again, and again.  You can work for good without being controlled by envy, and you'll get a lot more good done without it.

That's a really, really long-winded description of the problem.  So what do we do?

Well, for starters, don't envy people.

Easily said, nearly impossible to do.  But I'm not saying to go around thinking you're the greatest thing on earth and that nobody has any control over you.  I'm just saying this, and I'm even gonna do that thing I like to do and put it on its own line because it may be the most important part of this whole spiel:

If you would rather be yourself than anybody else on this earth, no matter what, you have won the most important battle of your life.

If you are okay, just well and truly, deep-seatedly content with who you are as a person, you are invulnerable to the attacks of others in a way that can not be granted in any other way, that can not be faked, that can't be replaced.  Trust me on this.  I've tried it.  It kills envy at the root, and once the envy is gone...

Once the envy is gone, that person who cut me off in traffic is a dangerous idiot, and boy, I sure am glad I'm not them, but I really hope they don't hurt anybody, and I'm glad to get away from them.  I may flare up with anger for a moment, but it doesn't consume me.  Maybe I feel I'm better than they are?  Well, I have to be careful of pride, but frankly, for that moment, I was better than they were, and I like myself better for that.  I'll need to like myself better, so that the next time I myself do something stupid or careless behind the wheel, I can feel chastened and resolve to do better, without having to resort to defensiveness.

If my boss does something to me -- and bosses have great power, and have nearly ruined my life more than once, at least it felt like it -- I have a deep consolation in the fact that I am not my boss.  I would never treat someone like that.  I will endeavor to always not treat someone like that.  I pity someone who would need to abuse their power.  In order to have the power my boss had to mistreat me, I would have had to become like them, which disgusts me.  I can't hate someone who is forced to live with themselves, knowing that they are that.

I say it "disgusts me", and that's where I have to be careful, and you should, too:  don't ever hide hatred behind a veil of fake pity.  You know when you're lying, so don't.  A lot of people disguise their inner poisons this way, saying they pity their enemies when really they respect their enemies enough to try to insult them by using the word "pity"; if you truly pity someone, you release the need to tell them that.  Naturally and simply, your mind reaches the conclusion that they have it bad enough.  If telling them they are pitiful would help them, you might try it, but if they abused you, you're the wrong person to say it anyway, so you leave it alone unless circumstances force you to make a stand (you see them abusing someone else, etc.), and even then, you behave more responsibly if your pity is real.

That's a big part of the reason I've avoided writing about this... because it's hard to talk about it in the context of things that have happened to me without sounding like I'm throwing pot shots at anybody who's ever hurt me, should they stumble across this.  Which isn't the case (and fortunately isn't too likely).  I've done more than my fair share of damage and participated in plenty of evil that was rooted in the envy I had of others for years.  I accept that I was that not-so-great person, because it helped make me the me I'm content to be today; and that right there would be self-acceptance, something you need if you're going to make this process work.

I can't hate those who have abused and scared me, even if I act against them with all my strength.  I can't hate those who have attacked me from out of nowhere, or unjustly... those who have told lies about me, or not tried to understand me, or who have viciously responded to gentle disagreements (now that would be me, for years).  The thing is, I remember what it was like to walk around vicious and defensive, and I was a miserable thing, in constant pain, who was terrified of others all the time.  How can I hate someone like that?

As long as I am, on the whole, content with what I've made myself, they can not destroy me.  They just don't have that power.  You can kill me, but then what?  I lived my life as someone content with myself; you will live the rest of yours a murderer.  I can't envy you.  I was always going to die at some point anyway.  I honestly feel pretty bad for you.

Enough people know me to know I've not had every advantage in life; I've had to fight a lot, I've spent my share of miserable years.  Getting to a point where I can honestly say I'm content to be me wasn't easy.  I'll always have to work on it.  But it's done me more good and offered me more healing and kept me out of MORE TROUBLE than anything else ever has.

That's what people mean by self-esteem, and it's not shallow.  A girl can think that she looks like a troll, and be terribly unhappy about it, and yet try her best not to hurt the feelings of her friends because she values the part of her identity that she has named, "good person".  A powerful, attractive woman can be absolutely scathing toward her underlings and admirers because the part of herself that deals with others has been labeled very differently.  Cruel people can fake confidence, but not possess it, because anybody who can be inspired to be cruel is at heart a helpless and easily manipulated human being, whether they realize it or not.  That's an easy one to disbelieve from the outside, so don't bother applying it to everybody on the planet.  Just apply it to you.  You know what's going on in your insides, and you know that at the heart of cruelty is a desire to take, and that you can't take without wanting someone else not to have something... and at the heart of that wanting, is a feeling that life was unfair to you.  It's very hard to be cruel when you're content with how life worked out to end up with you.

Forgiveness:  it's not really about letting someone off the hook.  It's about reaching a point of acceptance with who you are, in the context of things that have been done to you.  I can forgive the people who have hurt me in the past (even me), not because they deserved it (though a lot of them did), but because without those hurts, I wouldn't be myself, and I refuse to countenance some imaginary unhurt, unscarred me; who is that?  She never existed, and who's to say she'd be worth a damn if she did?  Possibly she'd be miserable, because she'd never have been forced to learn the things I have.  I'm okay as I am.  Possibility for improvement, sure, but only from a base point of me-ness, and boy am I glad I have a me to work with.

Incidentally, you should be glad you have a you to work with; trust me, you'd HATE having to try to live inside a me.  I'm pretty awful, in many ways.  But I'm okay with being the one who lives with my particular awfulnesses.  I've got me figured out in some ways.  I'd probably completely bungle being a you (you're doing a fantastic job, btw, thank you for handling that).  That's how it works.

I'm not perfect at this.  But frankly, it's a self-reinforcing system... because that feeling of hatred, of burning rage, of bitterness and despair and shame and terror that is involved in feeling that I am somehow less because of someone else's more, is PAINFUL as hell!  When you find something that keeps you from feeling that, even in response to some of the worst things that other people can do to you, it's really no genius move to keep doing it.  Especially if you have a real problem with rage and feelings of hurt, especially if you are sensitive -- if you have the worst problem, that's when the conditioning will work the best.

Now, if you have absolutely no idea how to be content within yourself, then you may need help in the form of therapy, or religion, or friends, or change in lifestyle or habits, or whatever works to get you there.  What this essay emphasizes is not how to get there, it's the importance of getting there.  Having a low self-concept means feeling that you have nothing, even if you're the wealthiest and most brilliant and talented and beautiful person in the world.  And when you feel you have nothing, you leave yourself absolutely open to envy, and from there hatred, cruelty, and all the rest of it.  Having no deep-seated conviction of yourself as an acceptable human being is pretty much an emotional abscess; it will eventually fill with something, and unless you heal it, that something will be a disease.

Mark this:  upkeep of your self esteem isn't about feeling good, or it isn't just about feeling good.  It's like having an emotional immune system.  Without it, you're dead.  Without it, you can spread a hell of a lot of vileness to other susceptible people.  With it, you can stop the spread at you, and manage to go on and actually do some good in the world.

I think I've reached the end of just about all I have to say on this subject, even though I've wandered pretty wildly and touched on plenty of things that each deserve their own book (and the books have already been written, I'm sure, just go look for them).  For instance, there is a lot that goes into compassion for others that has nothing to do with self-concept, and everything to do with knowing more about the actual circumstances of others and recognizing things about the ways that people work and the reasons why they do things.  But honestly, if you start from a point of there being a possibility for compassion, most of the heavy lifting has already been done there.  Reasons are but a research away.

I hope that it helps.  It's helped me a great deal.  Envy is a prison; I don't intend to ever go back, much less die there.

Stop seeing it as cute and understandable, and start working to eradicate it.
A. Askew: hushanivad on January 13th, 2011 08:54 pm (UTC)
Wow, brilliant timing.

thank you so much for this. <3
Gigi, Gina-Beanaadoorhasopened on January 13th, 2011 09:37 pm (UTC)
I second Anivad. I feel like you wrote this just as I was needing it most.
It put into perspective, not the envy I have been feeling, but the envy I have been on the opposite end of.

Thank you, really. It's very insightful.
sleepygoof8784: Working on it Chapelsleepygoof8784 on January 13th, 2011 11:54 pm (UTC)
Such an amazing essay. I know I need to get to this place. And I'm working on it. And this, is so helpful, and insightful.

And really what I needed to hear today. And amazing message. :D

Thanks for this, and by the by, I <3 you as you are. And hope with help (of the friend and professional variety) I can love myself just the way I am too. :D

irene_adler on January 14th, 2011 01:29 am (UTC)
I have to admit that I have liked mocking other people's pain as "undeserved" far too much -- especially since I did this to so much of my own pain for so long.

Recently, I eased my life incredibly by simply saying to myself: dang, lady, it is hard to be here in your skull! It is not easy to be you! It is okay to admit that! Of course, it is not easy to be you at all, or to be most of anyone else, but nonetheless the fact stands, and we could all use a moment's reflection on it.
Random Human Femalewithered_shadow on January 15th, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC)
It never ceases to amaze me how insightful you are. I never would have considered envy in these terms, but you are absolutely right.
(Anonymous) on January 16th, 2011 03:06 pm (UTC)
Lawdy, lawdy...
I envy your thoughtfulness, insight and command of language... ;-)

No seriously, a more concise and well executed argument would be very, very hard to find. I agree your timing has targeted me here as well. I seem to have arrived at a similar end this last week your synopsis nails home.

bow chicka bow wowsmutjunkie on January 19th, 2011 08:51 pm (UTC)
I finally got a chance to read this. It was difficult, not because it was poorly written (far from it) but because it forced me to face up to my shortcomings.

I'm probably going to print it out so I can highlight and annotate. I may or may not pester you with questions.

I quite like the you that you are.