Mar 22, 2012

The Root of All Envy

I came across a research study the other day linking envy with sabotaging behavior at work. You wouldn’t think business researchers were so interested in such catty workplace predicaments, but apparently our inner lives have a lot to do with productivity.

I can’t say I’ve been plagued much by envy at work. But I do remember years ago, as a hungry, up-and-coming professional, I'd be sitting in various airport terminals observing the other business men—how smartly they were dressed, the way they carried themselves with such confidence, talking trash on the phones as they closed important deals—and, well, they all appeared so much more successful and commanding than me. This realization would then trigger a bout of negative thoughts: I’m not smart enough. I’m not accomplished enough. And why can’t I afford a decent suit?

The most preposterous thing, of course, was that I knew nothing about these strangers, other than what I was projecting on to them from my own deep longings and insecurities. To make matters worse, I would then concern myself with the sinfulness associated with those envious feelings. 

Jesus would surely have given me a good smack upside the head had he been sitting next to me. “What?” he would say. “My infinite love isn’t good enough? Like some Armani suit is gonna do it for you?” Then he would spit on the ground in disgust.

I came home once and mentioned it to my wife during a late night sheepish confessional.  She is a very insightful psychologist and offered another perspective.

“Envy is nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Those feelings are coming from somewhere for a reason. You need to pay attention to them.”

Rather than stewing in it, she suggested I hunker down and face off with the thing, to get at the root and find something of value there.

The key to working through envy, she said, was to do something about it. To channel those negative feelings into productive, affirming actions that would move me in the direction my subconscious self-image was nudging me towards.

The problem arises when we ignore those feelings, or avoid listening to what they are telling us about our inner selves, the unfulfilled pockets of our lives. Is there a dream that is being squelched? Dormant gifts and talents being suppressed? A negative self-image that keeps saying “you can’t”?

The other day, a friend handed me an ancient spiritual exercise from a recent monastery retreat, called the Daily Examen Prayer. At the heart of this meditation is a quiet reflection upon the feelings from the day, taking an emotional inventory of sorts. “I look for stirrings in my heart and the thoughts that God has given me this day, and also those that have not been of God.”

What’s most important, my friend said, is to acknowledge the negative feelings, but refrain from judging—which can get in the way of God’s healing process. Just simply take notice. After a quiet period of self-examination, the exercise concludes by asking God's help in developing a concrete plan for addressing them.

Perhaps envy itself isn’t the problem as much as our own willingness to listen and act upon what it’s telling us.

As for me, I took my wife’s advice and became more determined and focused in developing myself professionally, getting better educated, and taking more risks to explore the limits of my capabilities.

By the way, if you ever find yourself waiting idly at an airport, observing the rush of business men, perhaps you’ll see that it’s me there—the smartly dressed gentleman walking briskly through the terminal, talking trash on the cell phone. 

Image by Jamie Carter. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Bradley J. Moore.

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