Envy, at Christmastime

Of all the Christmas cards one receives, there is one class that I guess to be least welcome. These are the cards that contain a folded, printed sheet, presenting the family history for the past year.

Surely gentle reader knows the genre. Some of these are of course quite innocent, the best contain self-deprecating humor, but some are humorless and downright boastful. The recipient may find himself gnashing his teeth at the closely spaced screed. It recounts the almost improbable worldly success and social advancement of every single member of the family – the fresh wealth and honors settled on them – mixed, usually, with moral preening over the unarguably good causes to which each member remains devoted in his spare time.

The message may then be rubbed in with holiday photos.

But who will complain? Surely it is an honor in itself to know such a wonderfully successful family, and to have such allies in one’s own aspirations to the lesser heights. A saint, of that “holy idiot” class incapable of reading mixed motives (and thus presumably incapable of “discernment”) might be overjoyed to learn that all is so well with them. For he can now turn his prayerful attention to some other family, not nearly so fortunate.

Perhaps I should speak only for myself, and boast on my own account that I don’t seem to get “success story” inserts like that any more. This would not be because I don’t know people who send them. Rather, I’m not on their lists any more. My efforts over the years to free myself from bourgeois associations have paid off so well that I have achieved the status of pariah.

Much pride went into these efforts, and among the seven deadly sins, I recall that Pride is the Queen Bee in the Hive. Am I, when I examine my conscience, prone to take pride in this? Have I so triumphed over my own self-interest that I have shaken off all my “unworthy” acquaintances? Guilty as charged, alas, Your Honor!

Humility and unselfishness are not the same. Selfishness goes under better disguises.

La Monomane de l’envie by Théodore Géricault, 1822 [Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, France]
La Monomane de l’envie by Théodore Géricault, 1822 [Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, France]

You see, or I hope you will see, gentle reader, that since the “misfortune” of our eldest ancestors (I refer to the family of Adam and Eve), evil has been lurking in the heart of Everyman. We are, as the eighteenth century divines put it, a “Fantastick Race,” by which they did not mean to praise us. Rather, they meant that our follies are innumerable.

“Self-love, Ambition, Envy, Pride / Their Empire in our Hearts divide,” wrote my hero Jonathan Swift in his delightful (and hysterically funny) verses upon his own death, in which he imagined his old “friends” deriving advantages and comforts from it. A surgeon of the human heart (with spiritual scalpels), his prognostications were quite plausible.

I am writing today’s lay sermon not, however, under the specific inspiration of Swift, but from reading of a study on Facebook use. This was done in the University of Copenhagen, and is indeed so plausible, that I haven’t bothered to read it, and am content with a brief summary.

Did you know that people who “lurk” on Facebook may suffer from a “deterioration of mood”?

The study was conducted with a thousand participants. I note, without comment, that they were mostly women. All were avid Facebook readers, and that term “lurk” describes their habitual, non-interactive behavior. They read others’ accounts of themselves, and what they find there makes them feel strangely sad and inadequate.

Verily: they suffer from a spiritual condition known to our Church as Envy. For everyone else seems to be having a better time of it – this is especially true of the rich and famous – and they are inclined to feel sorry for themselves.

I was impressed that the study actually used this term: Envy. It impressed me more, as evidence that sociologists can sometimes spot the obvious. Too, as the latest indication that Christian moral ideas aren’t dead yet, even in Denmark. But it impressed me most, because of the nature of the sin.

Going once again by my own experience (which includes the experience of myself), Envy is the crime we are least likely to confess. Pride we may admit on occasion, and five more “deadlies” in our lightest spirit, including what we now imagine to be throwaway stuff, such as Gluttony. Our knowledge of Envy is actually suppressed.

Positive evidence often emerged, over my years as a hack pundit. I often suggested that Envy was at the root, or at least prominent in the mix, of the most murderous impulses. I even argued, on the day of 9/11, that Envy had huge explanatory value for the phenomena of terrorism. It goes back to Cain and Abel, or rather, it goes back one generation before, but as I was writing for secular “family newspapers” at the time, I omitted this theological dimension.

Immediately I was pestered by furious mail, calling me stupid. My correspondents wanted to know how I could believe that something so huge and terrible could be triggered by a little thing like envy.

At least one intelligent Muslim, in my recollection, took it as a personal insult that any Muslim would be moved by mere envy to destroy this. . .symbol of American wealth and power. His letter included a tirade against me, and incidentally expressed his envy that I had the freedom to write a column in the press, and he had not.

But most of the correspondents were Christian or “post-Christian,” and all agreed in thinking envy a paltry and insignificant thing; something not worth mentioning. To which my response could only be that it is a very big thing, and therefore worth mentioning more often.

Apparently, the Danish study suggests a little cure. I don’t think it can achieve much, beyond the “ignorance is bliss” principle. But for what it’s worth, I will pass this advice along. It is to get off Facebook.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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