Painting of Mary Magdalene by Frederick Sandys,1860
Now we come to the fourth devil in the exploration of obstacles to the creative pattern and Marie Howe's poem: Magdalene– The Seven Devils. It is: envy, disguised as compassion.
I have thought about this one a lot- it is the most difficult one for me to unwrap. I was struggling with how to approach it– so I put it down. It was a Saturday, and still dissatisfied with my attempts at writing about envy, I decided to take a break to run errands. I was listening to Moth Radio Hour on NPR in my car. They were featuring stories on coincidence– all kinds of wonderful stories from listeners.
A high school student called in saying that in her literature class they were studying the novel The Scarlet Letter. Their assignment, as students, was to choose their own worst fault and, modeling the heroine of the story, make a big letter for the beginning of this word, and wear it to school all the next day, pinned to their shirt. She chose envy. That night she did her homework in front of the TV, carefully drawing a large E, and cutting it out. She put down her scissors when she heard the announcer on TV shout: and of the seven sins, the worst of these is envy! In spite of her skepticism, she was bowled over by the coincidence.
And there I was, contemplating envy and hearing this story–!
Envy is elusive, as it seems to be wrapped in a lot of other feelings: a sense of lack, of what we don't have or cannot get, and perhaps even an edge of resentment disguised in self-righteousness.
For example, a sculptor I know received a big prize– almost enough money to live on for a year! And a great honor. I felt envy rising– why her and not me?! These are feelings we are not proud of, and want to disguise. The temptation is to want to banish envy once and for all– but this approach has the danger of adding another layer of disguise–
So it seems important, rather than vanquishing envy, just to notice when the feeling arises, and to be wary of disparaging someone else's success.
It is only human to compare ourselves to others– in the best sense, folks we admire or even envy, can give us something to aspire to. It can even be light hearted: I want your red shoes! Or more difficult– like when you feel someone else got what you deserved. But if we stay with the story we weave about the other person, envy becomes disabling.
It helps me to remember Joseph Campbell's question: How do you know when you are getting pulled off course?
And I quote:
I know when my life is not in the center. I get fixed on some accomplishment or achievement that is tangential to the real centering of my life.
And I know when I am on track: When everything is in harmonious relationship to the best I have to offer.
Being too focused on someone else's accomplishments is a sign of getting pulled off course– but by shifting our focus, we can turn it into an opportunity– and use this awareness to go deeper into our own work.
But going back now to where we began: How is envy disguised as compassion? I don't think I know the answer to this one. I hope that some of you will have insights. Perhaps we find something about the person we envy and pretend to feel sorry for her– or disguise envy as pity by pointing out a difficulty she has. Imagine you are sitting in a hotel lobby in your blue jeans and tired out from travel, and lugging a heavy suitcase. You have come to meet your friend, who is just emerging from the elevator. You both stop and watch as a woman walks into the lobby, impeccably dressed, with a retinue of attendants carrying her bags, her laptop, a bottle of champagne and a tall vase of fresh flowers. And you whisper to your friend: Isn't it awful about what she went through with her husband? I just don't know how she manages– we put on a show of being concerned.
We have all known times we wish we were like someone else, or even wanted to be someone else– but to stay there is destructive. It is difficult to extricate ourselves, for envy is entertaining in its own way. Sometimes it seems the only option in moving forward, of getting free from this devil, is to act as if, to pretend we can do something we think we cannot– which leads us to the antidote–
The antidote to envy comes with shifting the focus from the other person to oneself: How can I learn from what this person has done well? They have not taken from you anything of substance, you have your own story– something that no one else has or can take away.
You ask yourself: What is it I want? What do I aspire to? And then make a decision to work harder on what it is you are reaching for.