The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine and was written by Allyson Flake Matsoso. It is shared here with permission.
A few years ago, my beloved family pet died suddenly, it was stressful for all of us. I decided the kids could use a little pick-me-up, so after school one day, I presented them with a box of a dozen assorted donuts. For one brief shining moment, I was a hero in their eyes. I told them they each got one after they finished their chores. My oldest son finished first and grabbed his standard maple. My eight-year-old daughter finished her chore next and went to claim hers when disaster struck—apparently, she had also wanted the maple one! She found her older brother and completely unloaded on him. “You know I wanted that! I told you I wanted it,” she cried. To which he responded that he had heard no such thing.
After he collected eyewitness testimony proving she had not said anything, she admitted she hadn’t, but … “You saw me looking at it—you knew I wanted it!!!” He responded that he thought she liked sprinkles. “You do stuff like this to me all the time. You know what I want, and you take it from me!” She became so upset she ran into his bedroom and tore his basketball poster off his wall. (This is not typical behavior for my normally kind-hearted daughter.) She then stormed into her room, slamming the door while yelling, “You all just hate me!” She was completely irrational. I let her calm down for a while and then went in to speak to her about the incident and deconstruct it a bit. As we walked through her thoughts and reactions, I realized it was a pattern that starts with covetousness and ends in irrational bitterness.
Envy as a Mirror
Envy is unique in its ability to hide and decay our lives internally. We may not even realize we are consumed by it. It keeps women (and men) apart with distrust and competitiveness. It encourages us to hide our failures and strengths from other women for fear we will not measure up. Let’s be honest, we all have women we envy. Maybe it’s the mom of five who looks like Gisele or the woman who runs an NGO while producing concert-pianist children. We can benefit from evaluating our envy as it can rapidly descend into other vices of resentment, anger, and self-justified malevolence. Women who are consumed by resentment have difficulty seeing the world as it really is, as well as putting their best self forward for the good of their children.
This piece is directed toward women; however, envy is certainly not unique to women. Men will benefit as they examine their own envy. From the very foundation of mankind, envy began its destructive work. Dr. Jordan Peterson speaks of the rapid descent from jealousy to hell that Cain pioneered for us all—ending in him killing his brother, Abel. Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted, and Abel’s was. Abel was the “good son”—the ideal—and Cain was jealous.
Dr. Peterson says, “If you destroy your own ideal—which you do with jealousy and resentment and the desire to pull down the people who you would like to be … then you end up in a situation which is indistinguishable from hell.”
So let’s break down this descent, the same one that sent my daughter storming into her bedroom with the belief that “everyone hates me.” Let’s see if we can stop it in ourselves before it becomes a monster.
An Abundance of Scarcity
A lot of women’s resentment may stem from a deeply-held belief that there is inherent scarcity in the world. I know this feeling well as the youngest of 7 children. If I was late to the dinner table, there might not be any food left. But when we view the world as a place where we must hold tight to limited resources, we start to see our fellow man as foes rather than friends.
Is this scarce view of the world and our place in it accurate? As the population grows, resources should become more scarce. However, the truth is we have great reason for optimism; there is “enough and to spare.” People are being pulled out of poverty and hunger at a faster rate than ever before in history. Knowledge and innovation grow as more people have access to them. Mothers with multiple children know their capacity to love grows with each additional baby—and siblings’ lives benefit from the addition as well. My daughter knew there was only one maple donut—but there is not a limited amount of wealth, happiness, or love to be spread among the masses. For believers, we know that the love of God is infinite and His blessings abundant. However, we must trust in His will and timing.
Rachel, the rightful first wife and true love of her husband was long-barren, while Leah produced six sons. Genesis 30:1 says, “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, Give me children, or I shall die.” I can only imagine the anguish she experienced at the arrival of each of her sister’s sons—guilt for not being happy for Leah as well as a vivid reminder of her own want.
We all have had the experience of the guilt of being envious when something good happens to someone else. Is this partially because we believe we are now less likely to receive such a blessing? I appreciated Jordan Peterson’s advice to a man who admitted to being consumed by envy, “Figure out how you would like to feel about the world. Let’s assume that you would rather be pleased about other people’s success and not envious. Think about why you might be happy about other people’s happiness. It’s not like happiness is a zero-sum game. Lots of people can be happy at the same time. Do you really want to live in a world where other people are less happy? In what possible manner would that be useful and good for you? It might make you feel grudgingly satisfied in a dark way, temporarily, but it is not a good long-term strategy.”
The 7th Deadly Sin of Covetousness
Os Guinness, author and social critic said, “Traditionally, envy was regarded as the second-worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.”
The last of the 10 Commandments, “Do not covet,” is a commandment about our “internal life” and how we frame our own consciousness. It seems comparably simple to control our “sins of the flesh” by avoiding temptation, but to keep ourselves from covetous thoughts seems almost impossible. However, it is helpful to look at our envyings and see where they originate. If we honestly recognize the things we covet and those conditions which light the fire of jealousy in us, then we can find what we most desire.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
I have often proudly thought of myself as not “being the envious type.” When women are prettier or richer or more popular than me, it doesn’t really bother me. For years I have fooled myself into thinking I am not burdened by covetousness. However, I now know I congratulated myself too soon. The truth is, I am typically not bothered by some of the common causes of envy afflicting women—but that is no virtue—those are not the things I value most. Years ago, I remember having to shut down Facebook anytime someone would post photos of their international adventures. I resented the fact that I, who love traveling, was stuck in a freezing Notre Dame basement apartment watching babies while my husband got the graduate degree I always wanted. I hid my envy from myself, but I now see that expressed itself in my inability to glory in others’ experiences or achievements. As I started to realize the meaning of motherhood, I found my ability to be happy for others increased.
Author Tim Challies says, “One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped, and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most resent. Guinness reminds his readers ‘we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings.’”
For me, the key is to label envy when I feel it and stop it before it reaches the next stage of progression. If envy begins to consume me, then I know I need to look at trying to make progress in the areas in which I am exhibiting envy. Jordan Peterson has helped me see that where my interests direct me, I can make a great contribution to the world. I need not shut those avenues down because of the demands of motherhood. Sometimes I need to take a trip with my husband or read a challenging book. I try to temper my need for self-fulfillment with patience and a recognition of the preeminence of my current responsibilities as a mom. When I am out of the “little kid” phase, I will have even more time for travel and reading.
The Actualities of Envy
“You don’t want someone else’s fate, your fate is enough, your adventure is enough.” ~Jordan Peterson
As we acknowledge the people we envy, we can also recognize that those we envy are likely not really living the lives of perfection we imagine—I had a bite of the maple donut, and it was nothing to write home about. Everyone’s life has tragedy. The perfectly put-together mother might, in fact, have depression; the world traveler may contract cancer in four years. As Dr. Peterson often reminds us, “Life is often suffering,” and if we get respite from that, we should enjoy it because “the flood is coming.” Perhaps, if we saw the full reality of people’s lives, we would not begrudge those bouts of happiness and success when they come.
Envy is rooted in the other “internal sin,” pride. A focus on self will always lead to comparison—the central feature of pride and fuel for envy. C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.” Pride is feeling superior for having more than others, and envy is disdain for those who have more than you. Envy is competitive. As women, wouldn’t we rather cooperate with each other than compete? Women need unity; we need to feel we are working together for a common goal.
Assuming the Worst in our Fellow-woman
As we progress from coveting things to envying people, we may start misconstruing reality—we may be tempted to turn those we envy into monsters. My daughter went so far as to imagine her brother knew her internal thoughts. “He saw me looking at it, he KNEW I wanted it!” I certainly don’t believe the average woman lets her envy run to the point of intense resentment toward an innocent mom trying her best. By and large, we want the best for each other. However, we should be aware of envy’s ugly descent. It can bring bitterness and anger into our lives as we start reshaping reality after its own design. This is where current “social justice” causes can turn ugly, as they single out entire races or genders as “oppressors.” Consumed by resentment, we assume the worst intentions in others and believe all their gains were ill-gotten.
One of our biggest mistakes is assuming that people are thinking about us at all. As the saying goes, “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.” It is rarely the case that someone is intent on your destruction. They are too busy trying to navigate away from their own.
My husband is South African, so my children are biracial. People often ask me if we have had any incidents of racism. In our 15 years of marriage, living in 7 states, we have not had any noteworthy experience with racism. I am not saying people haven’t had racist thoughts toward us or even that we haven’t been treated differently than other couples; however, we have not noticed or remembered it. You will generally find what you are looking for. If something egregious occurs, we will deal with it, but we don’t analyze every interaction for signs of bias or injustice. We teach our children not to be overly concerned with the opinions or actions of others, especially strangers. It is nearly impossible to understand all the motivations and reasons behind others’ actions—my daughter was sure her brother was intent on making her suffer, but in reality, he was only interested in the donut. When we define others as racist or malevolent, we may be wrong. Yet today, we see an obsessive desire to label and judge the actions of others and take offense. This is another symptom of a worldview that emphasizes scarcity and our insecure place relative to others.
If we allow our envy and resentment to run our lives, we can descend into “justified” revenge against the perpetrators of our injustice. My daughter felt justified in destroying her brother’s poster. Envy-fueled “righteous indignation” resulted in the killing of millions of successful farmers in Ukraine during the Soviet era. The Jews in Germany. The Tutsis in Rwanda.
When determining if our resentment is justified, we should consider Dr. Peterson’s Rule Six from his book, 12 Rules for Life, “Set your House in Order Before you Criticize the World.” Where do we fall in terms of being a perpetrator of our own misery? Is our resentment directed towards the proper perpetrator, or are we shifting the blame away from ourselves? In our own lives as wives and mothers, resentment may exhibit itself as the endlessly snippy communication we exhibit with our spouse or our unwillingness to invite our mother-nemesis to book club. If we keep going on this path, we will be plagued with guilt. Deep down, we know we haven’t done all we can to make our situation better. We know we may be misrepresenting the part others have played in our misery. And even if we are fairly judging others, we know that holding onto resentment is self-destructive.
As I sat down with my daughter, we walked through what just happened. She said she felt bad for how she misrepresented her brother and for tearing his poster. She admitted she acted irrationally, and she asked her brother’s forgiveness, and he freely forgave her. As she hugged him, I saw her bitterness melt away, and she went about her day as a new girl. I believe the solution to her envy is the same as it has to be for us.
As we look honestly at our envy and our resentments, we can admit that some of our perceptions may be faulty: Perhaps those in the spotlight of our envy do not have the life we think, perhaps the world is not out to get us, and perhaps we are not justified in our bitterness. But just as we would deal with a bad habit, we should not attempt to stop it with our own willpower but replace it with something more powerful. If we fill our lives with meaning and attempt to improve ourselves and our families, we need not ruminate on the lives of others. If we find ourselves jealous of another’s accomplishments, perhaps we could make a concerted effort to replace it with compassion for that person. Pray for them, get to know their struggles, and begin to see them as fellow children of God with unique talents as well as weaknesses. Instead of an idol for worship or disdain—allow them to become a real person and one deserving of love. We are not all given the same gifts, but how bounteous could our life be if we gloried in others’ gifts.
“I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and be content without it.” ~George MacDonald, Lilith
Dr. Peterson’s emphasis on the poison of envy helped me to be more conscious of covetous thoughts. I am more aware of the envy that drives so much of the division in our world. Personally, it has allowed me to open my heart to women with whom I may have previously felt threatened. My work at the “Philosophy of Motherhood” website has allowed me to associate with many accomplished and intelligent women who have contacted me with impressions and suggestions. We share a common goal of spreading the message of “meaningful motherhood.” Several women have written beautiful pieces for the site, and I have gained precious friends. As we take the competition out of femininity and seek a common purpose, we open up the door to joy. We can now glory in the successes of others because we realize their success is a net benefit for the world.
As mothers, we must show our children the answer to envy—generosity. Show them that we are pleased with others’ good fortune and that we appreciate beauty and talents we may not possess. Demonstrate an attitude of plenty, not scarcity. Explain how our perceived “lack” may, in fact, aid us in building character and appreciation. My sister repeats a mantra to her children when she senses jealousy rising, If you can learn to be happy when good things happen to other people, you will always be happy.
If we find it hard to step into the world of abundance, we may need to fake it until we make it.
“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” ~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Ultimately the cure for envy is dropping the comparisons and instead looking to Jesus Christ. As we accept Christ as our ideal and as One in whom there is no scarcity, we will be filled with love for others.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” ~Paul to Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:4)
We are daughters of a Heavenly Father and, as such, are deeply loved. He has an individualized plan for each of us and will aid us in accomplishing our missions. As long as we keep our eyes fixed on Him, we will feel no lack. Freed from envy, we will not fret over maple donuts but feel joy in our shared abundance.