Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Envy


Thinking and writing in Ethical Musings about greed, prompted me to reread Henry David Thoreau's Walden, in which he promotes the idea of living simply. One of my high school English courses had required reading Walden. I don't know if that is still true. In retrospect, I wonder if we, high school students in Maine, read Thoreau because he was a New England writer, his work on civil obedience was timely in a college community riven by controversy over the Vietnam War and the draft, or if the teacher appreciated his style and philosophy.

If you are unfamiliar with Walden, I commend it as a collection of reflective, insightful essays. For two years, Thoreau lived in a cabin that he constructed on the shore of Walden Pond. He rarely worked for money, instead surviving by growing his own food. He was a squatter. Both his cabin and garden were on somebody else's land. No rent was due, he believed, because his "improvements" added value to the land.

Several of Thoreau's emphases resonate deeply with me. First, he was right that stuff, whether possessions or wealth, inevitably burdens people with time-consuming chores and, often, financial expenditures. These collectively may include maintenance, cleaning, taxes, insurance, storage, and the need to generate income to pay those expenses. All of that takes time.

Second, Thoreau most cherished the time that he spent contemplating life, the cosmos, and ideas. Having lots of stuff deprives one of the time for contemplation, a loss that few people even recognize. He enjoyed reading books and writing; he found manual labor satisfying. But his real joy seems to have been in the freedom to savor each moment of the day as he desired.

Third, Thoreau appears to have lived an intentional life, choosing his lifestyle and how he used his time rather than allowing the tides of social conventions or public opinion. He chose clothes for their practicality, food for his perception of its nutritional value and affordability, and accommodation that suited him.

Unlike Thoreau, I don't want to swim in a pond in lieu of a shower or bathtub. Using a pond might cut my water bills and reduce my need for income. But ponds, even one in North Carolina's piedmont, are sometimes too cold for my comfort.

On the other hand, reading Thoreau reminds me of important values. I do not want wealth and power because achieving them carries too high a cost. I value my time. I want to savor my minutes and hours. Like Thoreau, my wealth is intangible and beyond price.

Psychologists distinguish between envy (one of Christianity's seven deadly sins) and jealousy. Jealousy consists of wanting what someone took from you; envy denotes desiring something that you have never possessed. Limited envy can fire ambition and improve achievement (envious people pay closer, more accurate attention to people whom they envy). In these ways, envy produces an effect similar to that of limited greed.

However, unfettered envy erodes social bonds. Cooperative relationships deteriorate into negative ones (betrayal, animus, etc.). Active envy saps the strength of the envier, further disadvantaging the individual and community. (To read more about what psychologists have discovered regarding envy, cf. John Tierney, Envy May Bear Fruit, but It Also Has an Aftertaste, New York Times, October 10, 2011.

In the Christian tradition, envy is also known as coveting. One (the Protestant and Anglican versions – includes people and things) or two (the Roman Catholic version – separate bans against coveting people and things) of the Ten Commandments prohibit coveting. The numbering depends upon how one enumerates the commandments against having no other gods and idols as one or two commandments.

Spiritually, both envy and greed kill, hence the label deadly sins. Both kill because they suck a person into moral quicksand. No matter how much wealth or power one has, no matter how high in the pecking order one climbs, somebody else is – or soon will be – even higher. The world's most powerful person can only hold the position for a maximum eight years. Forbes' estimate of who is the world's wealthiest person often changes each year. The world's most popular entertainer, best-paid athlete, etc., all change even more frequently. Vanity is fleeting and worthless, says Ecclesiastes.

If greed and envy are poor ambitions around which to construct one's life, what should a person seek that she or he might truly flourish?

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