7 min read

Envy: jealousy’s evil cousin

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

In the second of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Roger Bretherton investigates the psychological and moral impact of envy on its victims.
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Illustration generated by Dan Kim using Midjourney

The victims of envy

One of my favourite exercises to facilitate with large groups of people is called, ‘You at Your Best’. I introduce them to a list of positive qualities of character (wisdom, gratitude, kindness, self-control, bravery etc.) and then get them to pair up with someone they have never met. They tell a story of them at their best. When, in the past week, have they behaved in a way that was admirable? When did they surprise themselves with presence of mind or wisdom in action? It is a short exercise. It only takes six minutes. They tell the story, and the other person spots the strengths of character they hear in it. 

Most of the stories aren’t that exceptional – a problem solved at work, a small kindness shown to family, an awkward but necessary moment of truth – but invariably the room becomes deafeningly voluble as people share their finest moments with a receptive audience. It is amazing how energised people become when given permission to talk about living close to their ideals. Within minutes people who had previously never met are gabbling away to each other like long lost relatives. Strangers have become friends. Outsiders feel included. No one wants to stop. 

The hardest part of the exercise was to admit to a time when they were strong, kind, wise, brave, or honest. 

When I finally manage to reign in the raucous joy of connecting people, I’m curious to know how they found the exercise. Almost always someone will say that they found it unnerving to talk positively about themselves. The hardest part of the exercise was to admit to a time when they were strong, kind, wise, brave, or honest. They noticed a kind of internal barrier to their willingness to voice their own virtues. It feels socially dangerous or ethically wrong to say good things about themselves out loud. Their social conditioning tells them that bad things will happen to them if they do.   

When someone voices a sentiment like this – a nervousness to acknowledge the goodness they contribute to the world – it is not an expression of humility or modesty. More likely, at some point, perhaps for a prolonged period time, the very things that are best and most beautiful about them, have been attacked and criticised. I’m pretty sure I’m dealing with a victim of envy.  

The misdirection of envy 

Envy is greatly misunderstood in our time. It was once named among the seven deadly sins. Deadly because, when unchecked, it has the capacity to possess a human being entirely, to become their modus operandi, to subtly pollute every thread of relationship with which they have contact. Sin because… well, as a way of being, it poisons any prospect of joyful human community for those who are beholden to it.  

To make matters worse, we are often unclear about the terminology, particularly the difference between jealousy and envy. But the distinction is crucial. To be jealous is to protect and defend what is ours. Most obviously demonstrated in sexual or romantic relationships, jealousy is the instinct to protect the boundaries of a precious relationship, to view anything that threatens our commitment to those we love, as a temptation to be resisted. Sure, it can be over-played, it can become possessive or confining, but if our partner never shows jealousy, never expresses frustration at the things that spoil or reduce the quality of our shared intimacy, we are likely to wonder if they care at all. Advocates of the sexual revolution have been predicting the demise of sexual jealousy since the 1960s. They view it as a holdover from our evolutionary origins, no longer necessary in the contemporary world, past its sell-by-date and soon to be dispensed in the era of free-love.  But rumours of the death of sexual jealousy have been greatly exaggerated. Our hardwired instinct to hang onto love still hangs on. Most of us feel that a relationship entirely stripped of jealousy is a relationship stripped of love.

Envy sees the strength, talent, or goodness of others as a threat and, if we can’t own them, vows to destroy them. 

The psychological contours of envy are similar, but darkly different. If jealously wishes to cling to what is good; envy aims to destroy it. If to be jealous is to preserve what is ours; to be envious is to resent others for having what is theirs. Sometimes we don’t even want the things we envy, we just can’t bear the thought of someone else having them. Envy sees the strength, talent, or goodness of others as a threat and, if we can’t own them, vows to destroy them. It is the message behind every honour killing, the mantra of every domestic abuser: if I can’t have you, nobody can. It is the ethos of the competitive workplace in which others’ success is our failure - with every colleague who succeeds something inside of us dies.  

But this isn’t how envy is usually portrayed. Looking at the pop-culture definitions of envy that surround us, we could be forgiven for thinking envy is a bit of a laugh. Harmless, desirable, even good. Hardly a deadly sin, nowhere near the toxic desire to destroy the unique beauty of the other, more like the branding of our favourite nail salon, or eau de perfume. We are immersed in propaganda for envy-lite: the cheeky and indulgent desire to make other people wish they were us.  

But perhaps the main reason envy is so bad, the reason it consistently ends up on these ancient lists of how not to be, is that it has no end game. 

There can only be ONE 

We are subject to a misdirection. As every totalitarian propagandist knows, the best way to make people malleable is not to present them with a clear thesis with which they can argue, but to drown them in so much inconsequential information, so much white noise, that they can no longer discern what really deserves their attention. We are made to look in the wrong direction. Spotting the minor envies but completely oblivious to the major envies that act as invisible killers in our social water supply. We spot the envies we can laugh at while passing by the envies that leak into everyday life undetected, like carbon monoxide. We strain out the gnats but swallow the camel. 

Envy in its most deadly form is often too familiar to be noticed. Ever since Cain killed Abel, the most damaging expressions of envy have been found in families. Siblings compete against one another for the limited resource of parental affection and devise a surprisingly innovative set of chess moves designed to gain approval. Some families resort to an ever-shifting set of alliances and betrayals, like a royal court, a game of musical chairs in which the aim is not to land in the blame seat when the music stops. Other families, especially larger families, resolve the issue by carving out unique turf for each child. We recognise these stereotypes: the cool one, the funny one, the clever one, the spiritual one, the naughty one. The Spice Girls were not the first to realise that a one-word identity can help us stand out from the crowd. It works fine, until we run into someone else who has aligned themselves with the same brand.  

Sit-coms are filled with the comedic fallout that occurs when people meet their doppelganger in the workplace. There can be only One - one boss, one comedian, one intellectual, one golden boy, one damsel in distress- and envious war engulfs the boardrooms, staffrooms, and multistorey carparks in which Two meet. If we ever notice the green-eyed monster arising within us, we would do well to ask ourselves: what is the turf I thought was mine that this person is trespassing upon?  If we can detach ourselves from the desire to destroy our competitor, and reflect on that question, we’ll come to realise that we were always much more than the fistful of traits that defined us in our family. 

No end game 

But perhaps the main reason envy is so bad, the reason it consistently ends up on these ancient lists of how not to be, is that it has no end game. There is no better future into which envy would deliver us, it simply aims to negate or nullify whatever threatens our ego at any given moment. If only X were not like that, goes the logic of envy, then everything would be okay. But envy is a myopic state, it can see no further than the restoration of a self-centred status quo. It contributes nothing to the thriving life of joy and love usually associated with the de-centring of the self. 

The comparison with jealousy is again illustrative. Ultimately, a jealous act – in friendship or marriage or the workplace – when performed skilfully, is an act of hope. It values what is and holds the belief that the world will be better for everyone if the goodness we know now can be nurtured and preserved into the future. It requires not just an opposition to that which would spoil what is good, but gratitude for the good we already have. Jealousy enjoys, appreciates, and savours the beauty that is already present and aspires to magnify its legacy. Envy despises what is and can conceive no other response than burning it to the ground. 

The celebration of envy when taken to its logical conclusion, is the pursuit of a fiction, an impossible fantasy that can never be realised. It invites us to imagine nullifying the strength of all others, so the entire world revolves around us, the only star before an obsequious audience, coerced into adoration. Envy partakes of a cynical philosophy of non-existence, and this is what make it a deadly sin. Not that it is naughty but fun, but that it is pointless and empty. 

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Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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