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Envy is an engine of American life. Our TV commercials remind us repeatedly of what some people have and we don’t—such as the newest cars, electronics, or cosmetics to make us look…different. TV programs lure us with riches. Fictional characters plot murder and revenge to get rich and express power others will envy. Reality “stars” endure humiliating, punishing experiences in order to win wealth and be enviable. On TV we tour fabulously expensive homes or pools or treehouses in neighborhoods many of us couldn’t visit without an escort. The point of generating envy, I assume, is to also generate capital for the few and low-paying jobs for the masses.
On social media, friends and pseudo-friends show us beautiful vacations and gourmet restaurant fare spread before them. (Sharing and bragging sometimes blur.) But envy can be poisonous and should be inspired with caution, if possible. My husband had a dear friend he described as being like a brother to him. But as the friend divorced his wife, he abruptly told my husband they couldn’t be friends any longer. “Why?” asked my husband, deeply hurt. “Because you’re too happy.” Being too happy is like being too smart, too young, or too attractive. There isn’t much you can do to mitigate the threat. The friendship ended right there.
When we foment envy in ourselves, we start to believe there’s something wanting about us and our daily lives and we want someone else to blame—recently during the mental anguish of the pandemic. Some lumped themselves together into special groups they believed were superior. Crassness replaced courtesy for many whose envy for people who enjoyed more education, status, or cultural awareness mutated. People invented hate for authority figures, science, humanitarians, and minorities who dared to build success. Envy erodes a beautiful heart. During WWII, many Germans simply took the homes, art, and family treasures of the Jews they had envied, those the Nazis murdered. Some people in the U.S. did the same to unfairly incarcerated Japanese-Americans who had been torn from thriving businesses. Envy can make formerly good people behave very badly—particularly when it’s combined with sanctimony, prejudice, or fear.
On the other hand, is there anything more heart-warming than having someone unselfishly cheering you on or supporting you—when they have nothing to gain? On FINDING YOUR ROOTS, celebrity guests are humbled when they learn how much their ancestors sacrificed and suffered to provide opportunities for descendants they would never meet. When we’re able to experience sincere joy at someone else’s good fortune, we feel expanded…because we are. Those who find ways to improve the lot of neighbors and even strangers create a positive environment for themselves in which their own lives begin to shine more brightly. Why do people volunteer? To relish their own goodness, to counteract the waves of darkness that shadow our lives. They begin to believe in others and, just as importantly, in themselves and possibility. They discover hope.