Freeing ourselves from the painful clutches of envy

September 29, 2005|By DIANE CAMERON

A friend called to talk. She was in agony.

"I feel envy," she said. "I'm envious of someone with a nicer house."

I listened. My friend has a very nice house, but I understood. I have felt enough envy to know its pain and the way that the shame of feeling it can silence us. I have envied people's clothes, cars, jobs and writing success. It's embarrassing; I have a nice life, but envy has little to do with having enough.

In 1739, philosopher David Hume, wrote: "It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity. A common soldier bears no envy for his general compared to what he will feel for his sergeant. The greater number of people we compare ourselves to, the more there will be for us to envy."

So we compare ourselves most often to our friends. That's what makes envy so painful. So what is envy good for?

My house-craving friend and I began to dig under our envies. What surfaced was a belief that the house, shoes, car - whatever - could fix us. But I have to keep relearning. You can't fill a hole that exists in the past. What most of us want is connection and community, but we go to the wrong places to find it, and paradoxically we think that if we already have it, it's not enough. Hence envy double-teams with marketing and we shop like addicts.

I look at my closet. I own lots of lovely things but none of them has the power to deliver me the way that something I don't own can. Envy is the con man who tugs at my sleeve and says, "Listen, just for a second." He points out the unpurchased shoes or bag and swears, "You'll be special if you have this. Just one more."

There is some truth to the accusation that advertising creates demand, but that's not the whole story. The envy in me reaches out as much as advertising reaches in. I am at best a partner and at worst an accomplice.

Sociology professor Sharon Zukin, author of Point of Purchase, writes: "The appeal of a shopping spree is not that you'll buy a lot of stuff; the appeal is that, among the stuff you buy, you'll find what you truly desire."

And what is that?

Ray Romano, the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, said on 60 Minutes, "If my father had hugged me once I wouldn't be here." He did it to be loved. Being a comedian and actor might be the long way around, but Mr. Romano's arc intersects ours. Like him, we want love. Because we hold that card so close to our chest, it's hidden even from us until envy bites and whispers, "If you had a bigger house."

Maybe the antidote to envy is wanting less instead of more. Rousseau said wealth is relative to desire; every time we yearn for something we can't afford we grow poorer, and every time we are satisfied we are rich. Therefore, Rousseau reasoned, there are two ways to produce wealth: Give a man more money or curb his desires. Since we're not going Rousseau's "noble savage" route any time soon, how can we curb our desires?

We could get lost in something bigger than us. The traditional route is God, but we could also lose ourselves in a cause or a problem. We have to stop holding on.

So whom do you envy? Dare to say it, and then give something away.

Diane Cameron is a writer who lives in Valatie, N.Y.

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