Monday, July 2, 2018

Learning to admire ought to be the proper Christian response to envy and jealousy.

Envy and jealousy plagues a large majority of people, and I can say this with some certainty because it is one of the most confessed sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  It does seem that the human heart (and mind) is somehow wired to competition (which may not be all that bad a thing) and to envy and jealousy at the success of others (which is one of the cardinal sins).  

Whilst the sword of competitiveness pushes one to excel in a given field, it does have a proverbial double-edge which reveals itself in the feelings of envy, jealousy and even covetousness.  Envy is really a pointless and stupid sin, because it is the only sin where there is no outright benefit to anyone when it is committed.  Every other sin has at least some degree of perceived good to cause one to give in to it.  Even a heinous sin like murder has some twisted benefit to the one who perpetrates the killing because of the belief that one’s life will be a bit better with the death of the victim.  Envy benefits no one – neither the one who is envious nor the one who is envied.  It truly is a pointless and stupid sin. Yet, so many cave in to it so easily. Sometimes, being overtly critical of others is a sign of envy, and we cover it up so cleverly by telling ourselves that it is the sophisticated and the enlightened, and those who are refined that can critique and comment. Yet we know that deep inside, what sets this off is envy. 

So what should be the proper Christian response to this apparent dilemma?  What should we be cultivating in order to have a healthy and less sinful approach to this streak in us that appears to foil our quest for holiness and sanctification?  Is there a solution that helps us build up rather than to tear down? 

An article in the New York Times last Monday attempted to put a new spin on this very subject.  The author based his recommendation on a book entitled “The Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam, who says that these feelings are very real in the human person. Shankar recommends that one who is prone to jealousy when a friend has achieved some success that one could have, but didn’t, ought to find a complementary aspect of their achievement which discourages an implicit comparison.  In other words, look for the difference in the way your competition did it as compared to yours, and when you spot that difference, frame the success within that difference and begin to celebrate your friend’s achievement.  His achievement is different and his goal was different from yours, and this, he proffers, tames the prideful side of you and it can even increase your own self-evaluation, because you will be wanting different things.

Shankar’s observation and conclusion isn’t all that far from the wisdom that spiritual greats like Ronald Rolheiser tries to impart when he wrote something about this human dilemma of envy and jealousy sometime back, but with a difference of course. Shankar is a science reporter with a station called National Public Radio in the USA; Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who is a syndicated writer of a column who writes from a spiritual view of life.

Rolheiser’s key to being liberated from the sin of envy and jealousy of another’s success is to learn how to admire.  I tend to agree with Rolheiser that the human person in the 21stcentury has somehow lost the art of admiring.  Perhaps I would go one step further to say that the 21stcentury human being is unable to admire because he or she just hasn’t been taught to do that well.  The modern mind so bent on success and personal glory has not given much space to train that part of us that admires, appreciates and acclaims things like beauty, goodness and talent outside of oneself.  

I was in Paris late last year and managed to wander along the corridors of the cavernous Louvre Museum in the city of lights.  I learnt that it’s not just the breathtaking masterpieces that one observes in that magnificent setting.  One can also people-watch, something that I did while I was milling the passages of the museum.  Pressing round me were the thousands of tourists who just like me, were there gawking at the beauty of the works of Degas, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet.  I even overheard someone saying in louder-than whispered tones “I’m sure I can afford to buy this one and put it over our fire-place in our mansion back home”. “Surely they were jesting”, I thought to myself, but that thought was something I brought back home as I mused on the human heart, and the need to possess.

I recall asking myself at that point whether that was the measure of the person’s status or achievement in life – to be able to buy up anything one fancies – even a priceless artwork.  If it is so, it may be the result of not having nurtured the ability to admire without needing to possess.   

If we have only been seeing life as a competition where we must be the top dog and trump over all our opponents, their success in whatever form will always be seen as a failure or loss on our part, and we must, by hook or by crook, have what they have.  It will signal that we have structured pretty much everything achievement and standing out. 

Living out our Christian faith well requires of us to not compare ourselves with others, and feel threatened when we see others enjoying various forms of success and earthly glory.  The key to do this is to admire without coveting, and to praise without regretting that you are not the one receiving it.  In truth, we will never be truly happy in life if we cannot honestly admire.  

God, I believe, is never in a snit, frowning and brooding as he looks at the world. Sure, it does concern him that the world has turned its back on him and his call to sanctification, but because he is love, he is also full of admiration.  Scripture tells us that he approved what he created – he saw it, and it was good.  When we learn to admire, we learn to be like God in that regard.  And that will be a very good way to deal with envy – a most stupid and pointless sin.

Post Script:
The diocesan priests of Singapore will be on retreat this week, and as such, I will take a break from my weekly reflection.  Please pray for us that we will respond to God's grace in the retreat and return next week to our ministries refreshed, energised and recharged.  The next blog entry should be on 16 July 2018.

1 comment:

  1. Truly, it is a learning... Not an easy one but a necessary, life giving one. I need to become aware of the jealousy and envy that hides in righteousness... And seek admiration and gratitude for life's journey. Thank you again for the timely and crucial reminders. May God bless you with the health you need to sustain His ministry given into your hands. Pax.