I find it odd that at times I can be incredibly grateful for something that another person has written, said, created, or done. Other times, however, I find myself envious that I didn’t think of that thing first—that I wasn’t the one chosen or ordained to make that particular contribution.
And I can vacillate from one to the other and back from one day to the next. Perhaps you can relate.
I imagine this vacillation has much to do with the state of our souls. When we are feeling self-conscious, unlovely, controlling, uptight, and all the rest, we are more likely to react in envy. On our better days, when all the world is sunny and bright, when the inconveniences of life are but adventures waiting to be embraced, we very well may find ourselves incredibly grateful for the contributions of another. We can be inspired, enlightened, made curious and thankful, rather than irritable and spiteful.
I have to wonder, too, if there is a relatability factor involved. Meaning, the more alike to someone we are, the more likely we are to be envious. For instance, I am far more likely to envy those who I can identify with very closely as far as age and accomplishments go. Thus, the “why couldn’t I have done that?” is a much closer question. It’s easier to grasp, feels more tangible. But when, for instance, considering someone of a different generation, especially centuries—even millennia—before my time or from a different cultural context, it is easier for me to respond with gratitude; there is less temptation to feel like I could have or would have done the same thing myself.
Regardless of what conjures up feelings of envy, one thing is likely constant, like an underground river, running beneath it all. When we experience envy, we are desiring some sort of self-glorification, some sort of attention. Even if we are the sort that don’t typically like being the center of attention, we still want others to know that we’ve accomplished something. We want the good opinion, respect, and admiration—even, dare we say it, the awe—of others.
Hear me say: this isn’t all bad.
I think this experience of envy is largely a twisted version of something good that we are meant to enjoy. We are made for being in communion with others, for community, for relationship. We are made to build one another up, to contribute to life and society in different ways, and to work together to make the world beautiful. We are not meant to all do the same things, and we are not meant to do our distinctive things alone. We may work together, we may work “alone” at times, but we are never truly alone. We are influenced by the works of others—we stand on the shoulders of giants, as they say, but we also lock arms with one another in the present, and go about this good work together.
Perhaps we are each meant to receive a peculiar, particular sort of glory for the unique contributions we each can and do make—however “big,” however “small.” But I think we’re meant to do so without comparison. We are meant to rejoice with others and celebrate their work just as they rejoice with us and celebrate ours. Envy enters in like rust, like rot. It screws with the way things were meant to be. It’s a twisted version of something good.
Fostering gratitude, on the other hand, reframes the temptation toward envy into an opportunity to celebrate, to encourage, and to build up. May gratitude fill our hearts this day, and in each day to come.