In 2008, Nick Paumgarten wrote a New Yorker piece about Art Garfunkel, describing Garfunkel’s habit of cataloging the thousand and twenty-three books he’d read since 1968. When I read it, I was pretty envious. To have read that much seemed impossibly awesome, a testament to hard work and discipline. When did he find the time to read all that stuff?
When I combat envy, my typical response is aspirational. Reading about Garfunkel, I started to catalog my reading, aspiring to some external measure of Garfunkel-ness. Which, now that I look back is weird. But envy is weird.
The Bible is full of injunctions against envy. It counts as one of the seven deadly sins, and is attributed to the reason why Cain killed Abel. And envy can perpetuate itself; Adam Philips, writing about Cinderella’s envious sisters, claimed that “making oneself enviable [is] the last refuge of the envious.”
My envious mind thinks “by becoming a better X, I’ll lose the envy I feel for the good Xs I know.” For me that X takes on different values: better husband, better programmer, better skateboarder, musician, father, cook, manager … the list of potential improvements is pretty unrealistic.
Envy is a failure, not of achievement, but of vision. The root of “envy” is the Latin invidere, “to look against, to look at in a hostile manner.” Envy blinds you. Your attention trains only on what you lack, and lack necessarily slots you as others’ inferior.
Of course, envy can also drive a search for for bigger things. Before I started programming, I didn’t understand code and wanted to learn more. I saw a stack of Java books on a programmer’s desk and asked where he bought them, and how he knew what he wanted to study. I envied his understanding of his craft and wanted to know more, and ended up buying my first programming book.
But envy usually blinds you. I had an extrovertive colleague, and his facility in talking to everybody really bugged me. He was someone who actually drew energy from talking; he did it with everybody. (The idea of talking to everybody makes me tired.) I wondered — and wrestled — with the fact that this person could so easily do what I couldn’t, and wondered why his career was working so well while mine languished.
A friend pointed out that I was actually quite friendly, and could expand my social world simply by trying each week to go to lunch with one co-worker I liked. I could stretch myself socially without becoming someone else. I tried it, and it really worked. But it was only when I opened my eyes to skills I already had that I made the first steps.
It may be that envy catches us in part because it makes us the victim and not the actor. Breaking free of envy forces you to do more than complain or rebel against circumstance, and sometimes it’s easier to complain. “The revolutionary wants to change the world”, Sarte wrote. “The rebel is careful to preserve the abuses from which he suffers so that he can go on rebelling against them.”