ENVY, you are a truly mangy cur.
Forbidden by the Ten Commandments, you nevertheless curl around our necks like a moth-eaten stole, un-shrug-off-able. Why, Shakespeare himself undoubtedly suffered from your love bites, or he could not have created Othello’s envious character Iago with such acumen. The Bard’s contemporaries, too, must have been punctured mercilessly by your small, sharp fangs.
Frankly, you are the most embarrassing of the Seven Deadly Sins – petty and demeaning. You are also the most misunderstood of the Ten Commandments.
If I were Moses, I would have called you by your proper name right from the get-go. I wouldn’t have couched my references to you in the term “covet,” which has a kind of comforting, velvety quality, like “coverlet.” I wouldn’t have said “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” I’d have put it to people straight. I’d have said, “Don’t envy,” and right away, folks would’ve gotten the idea.
But obviously, Envy, you were already firmly entrenched before Moses came on the scene, and he, for some reason, was pussyfooting around. The anti-coveting tract was the 10th commandment. Does that mean it was an afterthought? I can see where “the 9 Commandments” might not have had much of a ring to it.
Whatever the problem, the advice to steer clear of you has not worked. Making false idols is on the wane, and killing is generally avoided, but you, Envy, endure. Over centuries, popular culture has promoted envy like raindrops promote rivers. Without you, there’d be no upward mobility. Envy, have you seen House and Home? Playboy? GQ? Ox Monthly? Donkeys Today? Coveting is what life has always been about.
So commonplace are you that there are two current films called Envy – one straight-to-video number about “life in a Detroit drug ring” starring singer Ray J, and another by Turkish writer-director Zeki Demirkubuz, about two sisters-in-law, one pretty and one plain. In 2004, Barry Levinson made a film called Envy, as well, starring Ben Stiller as a man who is eaten up by his best friend’s (Jack Black’s) success. Ben Stiller envious of Jack Black -- now that’s comedy.
Envy of our friends and relations tends to run deeper than it does of strangers, but outsiders are by no means immune to our ill will. Zoe Williams, a writer for guardian.co.uk, summed up this brand of invidiousness in an article this past week dubbed Lotto Euromillions: Soothing the sore of envy when others strike it lucky.
In it, she noted that when we’re faced with the news that somebody else has had a massive lottery win, we immediately start trying to peg whether or not that person is worthy. In the U.K., for example, the poor reputation of “Lotto Lout” Michael Carroll (who won 9.7 million pounds in 2002 but wound up in jail) was pitted against that of an “unmaterialistic” and diligent newspaper editor called Pat Griffiths, who won 8.4 million pounds in 2004. Unlike Carroll, a substance abuser and wearer of vulgar jewelry, Griffiths earned public approbation because she was frugal and un-showy. Even among winners, we like to find a loser.
In Canada, snap judgments were made concerning Alberta’s Seguro Ndabene, who already had four lotto wins amounting to $2 million in five years when he hit the jackpot for $17 million in 2009. The Western Canada Lottery Corporation automatically investigated, as it says it does any lotto wins over $10,000, including those by multiple winners.
Then the brother-in-law of a lottery kiosk owner Ndabene regularly patronized complained, saying the winning ticket was part of Ndabene’s regular group purchases, in which the brother-in-law participated, and which the kiosk owner organized.
Nastily, one commenter on CBC News’ October 26th online story contributed a theory about how Ndabene was cheating, adding, “This is much better then (sic) the Nigerian letter Scam.” (Ndabene is from Mozambique.)
Ndabene finally got his money in November and then announced he was going to sue the Lottery Corporation for withholding his winnings, sans interest. Another commenter on CBC News chided him for that, writing “…you are just as bad as the guy who tried to take it from you. If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s sore winners.”
In the court of public opinion, the more you win, the more you lose.
I suspect there are only two kinds of people who never feel the tug of envy -- the truly virtuous and the intolerably smug. How I wish I were one or the other. The good thing about being genuinely virtuous is that you never have to feel bad about yourself. The good thing about being smug is that you’re always too busy patting yourself on the back to squeeze in feeling bad about yourself.
The rest of us waste too much time comparing what we are, or what we have, to the achievements and possessions of our peers. As the Guardian’s Williams points out, we are especially enraged when we believe they didn’t even do anything special to “deserve” their riches.
I’m not much of a one for envying other people’s cars or clothes, the restaurants they go to or the jewels they flash about. I don’t think anybody else’s husband is superior to mine or anybody else’s children are brighter. I’m far more likely to covet others’ initiative, persistence, foresight or fearlessness. I’d like to be as unselfish as one of my friends, as curious as another, as “in the moment” as a third. Rather than wishing I had their stuff, I covet their attitudes.
Still, I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind a slightly bigger house, one with a tad more natural light. As a result, these dang lottery winners sure do get on my nerves. The tickets I buy never win, even though I’m just as ordinary and unmeritorious as they.
So, Envy, if I swear to forego you in the future, could I have my reward now? “Covet,” shmove-it. As far as I’m concerned, the rules concerning you have always been unconscionably murky.
Surely you agree: Moses owes us.