The Jolly Green Giant
Envy eats nothing but its own heart. – German proverb
Last night was the Oscars. Award shows on television have become as ritualized as the Super Bowl. Just as the Super Bowl has a long pre-game show in hopes of drawing in viewers and raising money for the network, so, too, the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, and all the rest of the them have their own pre-game show: The Red-Carpet. This is where nominees and attendees walk from the spot the limo dumps them to the entrance. It’s lined by hundreds of people, hundreds of photographers, and at the end are reporters who ask the same inane questions to the same people year after year after year. The folks behind the velvet rope may scream themselves hoarse over a person whose name and face they do not recognize. All those folks on the outside know is the person on the carpeted entrance is getting in and that they will never get in. That makes the person on the carpet, whoever he or she is, Important, Famous, and worth screaming oneself hoarse.
It is with no false pride or humility that I admit the one Cardinal Sin that I believe has never touched me, and that I understand least, is envy. I can’t think of a time I looked at a celebrity, a politician, or some other person who is either wealthy, gifted, or otherwise in the public eye, and thought, “I want what that person has.” Of course, envy is more than that. Envy takes that pretty mundane feeling, combines it with a dollop of self-hatred, and soon poisons the mind with rage at the object of envy. How dare this person or that person become famous/wealthy/be surrounded by friends while I sit here unknown/poor/unloved? I can do what that person does well enough, certainly better than he or she. I deserve all those accolades! I deserve to be on the arm of a beautiful woman or man! I deserve to have paparazzi chase me around!
While many believe our society is rooted in greed, I think a place as complex and diverse as the United States moves far more on envy. Envy takes up within itself: greed, lust, pride, and wrath. This casserole of discontent becomes a toxin flowing through our national arteries and veins until it drives the whole, huge hulking thing forward. The poor envy the wealthy. The overweight envy the thin. The unknown envy the famous (and sometimes the infamous). Obsessions, stalking, violence, murderous ambition – these are some of the hallmarks of envy, how it becomes real in the lives of individuals. Or, it could be something as mundane as standing in a line behind a velvet rope in order to see another person walk by on a carpet.
It isn’t just greed that drives the American economy. If all it needed to keep this enormous engine chugging along were simple desire for objects, it would have petered out long ago. If greed is the hands that grab, it is envy that is the eyes that see what others have, and in seeing desire it to be their own. “Keeping up with the Jones’s” isn’t rooted in greed. Without envy, that desire to have what others have, to be what others are – wealthy, well-dressed, well-connected – our store shelves would remain crammed with goods. Envy gives us the various plumb lines and measuring sticks by which we can test our own social status.
Envy’s young cousin is jealousy. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, jealousy is a manageable affair. Envy, on the other hand, when it comes to other human beings, can become murderous. Stalkers bathe in envy, use it to brush their teeth and comb back their hair. The abusive spouse often is drunk not only on alcohol but on envy as well. Our political system would cease to exist without the mutual envy of politicians who desire the power others have; they desire the best seats at the best restaurants to demonstrate their reality; they desire the power to bend others to their will to demonstrate their reality; they desire men and women to fall over themselves to please them in all sorts of ways, to demonstrate their reality.
For you see, at the heart of envy is the nagging fear, perhaps even terror, that one does not actually exist unless one exists before the public as beautiful, powerful, connected, surrounded by the latest and best objects and toys. Without these things, the person deep beneath the waves of envy is in terror of drowning in the nothingness that is life without all these things and people others have that define them as “great” and “good” and “beautiful”. Thus the explosion of “reality TV” which exploits not only the envious voyeurism of the viewer, but the envious desire to be famous of those whose lives are exploited for the delectation of others. Whether it’s the “Real Housewives” phenomenon, the “Paranormal Reality TV” series, or the bottom-feeding “Jersey Shore” nonsense, envy pushes those on either side toward a middle that is a TV screen tuned in, with both the “stars” and the viewers performing a dance of desire – the be famous; to see how easy it can be to become famous – that only pushes our whole national envy machine forward further, and faster, than before.
Our celebrity press certainly wouldn’t exist without envy. Actors and actresses, politicians and performers, and that peculiar contemporary phenomenon – the celebrity known only because that person is known – are the mainstays of our public gossip (as has always been the case; I’m sure from ancient Egypt and China to small villages in North America, folks talked about those in power behind their hands and in whispers). The most common story arc is the rise-and-fall, followed by the golden boy or girl who suddenly is tarnished by scandal, whether it’s a personal foible or an act of public disgrace or even criminality. Few things seem to entertain as much as loving those on the way up, then being reminded of their humanity and fragility as they crumble before the laughter of a public who seem to be saying, “Just who did you think you were, being all high and mighty?” Is it any wonder so many people in the glare of the TV lens and movie camera live with substance abuse, depression, have nervous breakdowns, even kill themselves? Through working hard, perseverance in the face of failure, and a bit of luck, they have suddenly become accomplished at their chosen professions. At the same time, their lives become entertainment fodder for those who both love them and hate them.
I won’t deny jealousy in my life. I would certainly not deny desire, both for physical objects or people. I will deny, however, that these things have festered, become toxic, spreading a poison through my life so that when I see others with things I do not have, or people who seem to embody our now-current understanding of beauty, or the very powerful I wish not only to be them; I desire their destruction in order for me to take their place. Indeed, by and large I would be just as happy if not happier if our lives – my family’s and mine – were far less cluttered with the physical detritus of living. I am happy there are beautiful people in the world; I also know I have known many such beautiful people, men and women in my life, most certainly my wife and children among the most beautiful. Perhaps that only means I am privileged beyond measure; in fact, I tend to think that is the truth. I am not envious because I understand myself to enjoy certain advantages that have nothing at all to do with me or whatever gifts or talents I might have. Far more than shedding the seeds of envy before they plant themselves in my heart and kill me, I tend to see myself as needing to shed the comfort of the multiple privileges for which I neither asked and debilitate so many others precisely because these privileges are accounted rights.
While I am thankful for a lack of envy in my life, I also wish I understood those whose lives are encompassed by it. I wish I could get what it means to look upon another’s life and see judgment upon one’s own failures and shortcomings. Me, I look at the lives of others and am either happy for them, or am empathetic for them (pity is the reverse side of envy in some ways; only when one stands upon a height once occupied by another can one look down in pity). My life, all I have done and failed to do, both good and bad, is my own, and at the end of the day, when I stand before the throne, I will not blame others for all I have failed to do, or done that hurt others. While I get it, at an intellectual level, not understanding it as a part of my own emotional make-up leaves me wondering how it is a person can see the lives and possessions of others as a source both of judgment and desire.
Then again, maybe I don’t want to understand it that much.