Recently, some colleagues and I were discussing the spiritual benefits of gratitude, when one of them asked, "What gets in the way of you feeling grateful?" As you can imagine, there were lots of responses, but one that just about everyone related to was envy, along with its close relative jealousy. It's impossible to feel envy and gratitude at the same time as it is to feel both hot and cold.
In Othello, Shakespeare called jealousy the "green-eyed monster," and anyone who's ever envied another person knows how that beast can devour your most noble feelings. Envy is a lead weight on the soul, making us feel resentment toward people who deserve our respect and admiration. It can even make us root against people we love because we simply can’t bear the thought of envying them. Then, to top off the vicious cycle, we not only feel inadequate for not having all the things others have but we also feel ashamed of ourselves for hoping bad things would happen to people we care about.
Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and when you consider the linguistic origin of sin – an archery term meaning "off the mark" – it’s easy to understand why. Envy is like a strong wind that blows the arrow of spiritual intention off the target of gratitude, appreciation, acceptance, and lovingkindness. In a larger sense, it's an indication that we've strayed off the mark by focusing our search for fulfillment outward toward the objects of desire rather than inward to the self-sustaining divine peace within us. As the Buddha pointed out in his Four Noble Truths, craving leads invariably to suffering, because once any craving is satisfied it is quickly replaced by another one, leaving us chronically unfulfilled and yearning for something we don’t have. The ultimate cessation of suffering, of course, comes with the inner peace and self-contained fulfillment that has nothing to do with the things we crave.
Along the way, however, we are confronted by the green-eyed monster at every turn, especially in America, where every minute seems to bring another reason to feel deprived. There’s always some lucky stiff with something you want. Maybe even something you feel entitled to. A nicer car. A bigger house. A better looking mate. A richer mate. Any mate. Good health. Well behaved kids with terrific grades in excellent schools. A better job. A bigger salary. The promotion you deserve. Here we are, in the richest, most comfortable society in the history of the world, and instead of a huge "Thank you!" the dominant vibration that reverberates through the thought waves is, "Why not me? When do I get mine?"
How can we slay the green-eyed monster? One answer is to stop comparing yourself to others. Another is to tip the toggle switch in your brain to the gratitude side whenever you feel envious, in effect counting your blessings instead of your deprivations. Both, of course, are easier said than done. They require patience and persistence, since self-comparison and focusing on the half-full glass are usually old habits of the mind. It's worth the struggle, however, since the reward in the end is contentment and self-acceptance.
Along the way, here's an idea. If you're going to compare yourself to others, why not go all the way? We're usually pretty selective about who we compare ourselves to. Perhaps it’s a form of spiritual masochism, but we tend to look at the fortunate few who have what we want. Would it not be wiser to look in the opposite direction on the deprivation scale? Why not compare yourself to the billion or so people on the planet who lack electricity, or the even larger number who don’t have access to clean water?
Perhaps those examples are too extreme. Here's an idea: Why not delve deeper in your comparisons to the fortunate ones? Try to spend some quality time with the people you envy. If that's not possible, look into their lives in whatever way you can. You’re likely to find that they are not as happy as you might think they are. That they had more anguish on the way to getting the things you envy than you would care to have endured. That their current condition is not without pain and suffering. That they too have unsatisfied desires, and they too feel deprived of things – maybe even things you have.
I learned this important lesson quite by accident a number of years ago. I had recently published my only novel. I was very proud of it, but also very disappointed that the book had yielded very little financial reward for all the months I had labored over it. On the way to lunch with a new acquaintance, I was consumed with envy for him, and I was afraid it would show. A TV writer, he had worked on prestigious sitcoms like M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Along with a couple of Emmy nominations, he had a lovely home in the Hollywood Hills and a beach house up the coast. I made sure to park far from the restaurant so he wouldn't see the beat up old clunker I was driving. Over lunch he confessed that he was burning with envy. Over someone who'd won an Emmy? Over someone with a bigger beach house? No. Over me. Why? Because I had published a novel and he couldn't even get an agent to represent his. He wanted my advice! On top of that, his wife of more than twenty years had recently left him.
I can't say that I walked away from lunch not wishing that my novel had sold more copies, or that I no longer wanted that guy's beach house. But I sure didn't want the whole package of his life, and I was far more content with my own.
Look into the fine print of any seemingly fortunate life and you will see things you don’t want, whether it's illness or loneliness or arrogance or addiction or simply a sad and inexplicable lack of happiness. You might even feel pretty fortunate by comparison.
Ultimately, we all have to get over our sense of cosmic entitlement and realize that the universe is offering us, at every moment, a great deal more than we need, and a great deal more than we ask for. In an episode of the TV series Chicago Hope, an anesthetized patient sees the spirit of a departed friend. He asks the friend if he's learned what God wants from us. "He wants you to feel joy," is the reply. "It really offends him when people don't do that."
"How are we supposed to feel joy in a world full of pain and suffering?" asks the patient, who had lost both his son and his wife. "The suffering in this life is enormous."
The spirit replies, "So is the beauty, my friend, but you wouldn't know it. You're not looking for it.”"