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.