A Reason for Our Discontent

I read recently from an author who said that one of the reasons that modern people are so unhappy is that they are always comparing themselves with other people. Comparison is one of the ways we measure our lives so that we can figure out how we are doing. Without realizing it, this comparison of lifestyles is exactly what leads to envy. We can’t be absolutely happy with our lives; we can only be happy relative to how we see others doing in their lives.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbors.”

He is saying that so many of us are driven to perform and achieve out of envy.

Biography is a current show on television, and each week’s episode focuses on a prominent person and tells his or her life story. The show interviews teachers, childhood friends, and people who have known them on their rise to fame.

One of the people whom the show recently profiled is Larry Ellison, the founder of the wildly successful technology firm, Oracle. Ellison, according to the Forbes 400 list, is the third wealthiest American with a net worth of $40 billion.

During the program, as one listens to all of those who have known him over the years, it becomes apparent that Larry Ellison is driven primarily by one thing: to surpass Bill Gates as the wealthiest man in our country. He has a considerable gap to close in order to do so; with a net worth of $72 billion, Gates currently owns first place on the list.

Ellison’s drive is nothing but envy. The Bible contends that envy is one of the great evils of life. The early church recognized it as one of the seven deadly sins. And unfortunately, most people are not aware of its presence in their own lives.

Envy literally means to want someone else’s life or to want what someone else has. It means to covet, and coveting is forbidden by the tenth commandment. When we envy someone, we think that he or she has a better life than we do. Instead of being happy for the other person, we resent him or we are bitter towards her.

Tim Keller says the opposite of envy is praise. We rejoice when other people do well and have good things happen to them. Keller suggests that, if you don’t believe that you are envious of someone, know that it works in reverse. When the people whom we envy experience failure or have real problems, we secretly rejoice. It makes us happy. The Germans have a word for this: schadenfreude, and it means, happiness at the misfortune of others. And yet when others prosper and do really well, their success makes us disappointed and resentful. Both edges of this sword are sharp and dangerous, and it is tough to have just a single-edged sword.

Envy clearly has the potential to stab a hole in our souls and drain all of the joy from our lives. Most significantly it can poison our ability to enjoy our current life, the life that God has given us; this, in turn, spoils our ability to be grateful for what we have been given.

Do you see how this just cascades through our lives? If you really think about it, we live in a culture that promotes envy. It makes us envy the wealthy, the beautiful, the athletic, and the celebrity. It is quite clear that our advertisers use envy to motivate us to desire more; satisfaction is pushed aside. The marketing strategists understand what a strong force envy can be.

In next week’s blog, I will talk about how to deal effectively with envy. But I want to close with a humorous take on this matter from author, Walker Percy (a native of Birmingham, AL).

In his book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, he offers simple answers to life’s most difficult questions. At one place in the book, he gives a battery of multiple choice tests, the intent of which is to help us understand what is really going on in our hearts.

It is early morning and you are standing in front of your home, reading the headlines of the local newspaper. Your neighbor of five years, Charlie, comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically – he doesn’t take good care of himself and you know that he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary by-pass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning!

Over he jogs in his seat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news! “My chest pains,” he crows “turned out to be nothing more than an a hiatal hernia, nothing serious.” He has also just gotten word of this great promotion he has received and that he and his family will soon be moving to a new home, which happens to be in a much more exclusive part of town. Then, after a pause, he warbles on, “Now I can afford to buy the lake house we have always dreamed of owning.”

Once the news settles in, you respond, “That is great, Charlie. I am happy for you.”

Now, please fill in the multiple choice. There is only one correct answer to each question.

Question: Are you truly happy for Charlie?

A. Yes, you are thrilled for Charlie; you could not be any happier for him and his family.

B. If the truth be known, you really don’t feel so great about Charlie’s news. It’s good news for Charlie, certainly, but it’s not good news for you.

Percy then gives the following directions:

If your answer to the question above is (b), please specify the nature of your dissatisfaction. Do the following thought experiment – which of the following alternative scenarios about Charlie would make you feel better?

A. You go out to get your paper a few days later, and you hear from another neighbor that Charlie has undergone a quadruple coronary bypass, and that he might not make it.

B. Charlie does not have heart trouble, but he did not get his promotion.

C. As the two of you are standing in front of your homes, Charlie has a heart attack, and you save his life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, turning his triple good news into quadruple good news. How happy would that make you?

D. Charlie is dead.

Percy then asks: “Just how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate?”

As I noted earlier, envy is not a twenty-first century phenomenon, yet technology has increased our ability to see into the lives of many more people. Not surprisingly, then, envy has been elevated as a root cause of personal discontent. It contributes to why so many adults find life to be disappointing. I will pick up here next week.

Watch Walker Percy Speak at Notre Dame




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