Envy is described as a grudge fueled by the coveting of someone else’s qualities, possessions, or stature in life. Envy probably has existed for as long as humans have. Remember Cain and Abel? And, while coveting is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, since about the Third Century A.D., envy has been known as one of the seven deadly sins. St. Thomas Aquinas even identified three stages of envy.
The bottom line is that envy serves only to keep people apart. And it is ugly to watch in action.
My wife was always a good student. She worked hard for her grades; her parents expected nothing less. She enjoyed, and still enjoys, reading and learning. She was also well-behaved. The nuns who taught her in Catholic school appreciated these traits of hers. Back in those days, “bad” students could expect a slap on the palm from a ruler; never once did this happen to my wife.
One school year, when my wife was around 12 or 13 years old, she and her classmates had to pick a folded strip of paper out of a basket. Each strip contained the name of a student, and the one who picked that name would be his or her Secret Santa. The Secret Santa was to give a small, inexpensive gift to the person. The twist to this system was that the Secret Santas had the option of deciding whether or not give a gift.
As always seems to happen in schools, some of the children who had grown up together and knew each other for a long time formed cliques. In my wife’s class there was one clique of “cool” girls who seemed older and more physically developed than the others. They also tended to be indifferent students who received the ruler for what their teacher considered misbehavior.
As someone who had transferred into the school the previous year, my wife had no history with any of her fellow students. Although she was shy, she made a few friends, but she was not part of any clique.
The last day of school before the Christmas break finally arrived. The classroom was decorated with a Nativity scene, candy canes, cutouts of snow flakes and snowmen on the windows, even a small Christmas tree decked out in colored glass baubles and tinsel. Under the tree were the Secret Santa gifts.
Finally, the teacher let the students go find their gifts. There was much excitement and happiness, and everyone was surprised that the teacher put up with the noise and disorder. By the end, everyone had found a gift. Except for my wife.
What she did have was a note in an envelope from “Gloria,” one of the “cool” girls. Gloria wrote that my wife did not get a gift because she did not deserve one.
My wife was stunned. She hardly knew Gloria, and she could not remember ever hurting her feelings or insulting her in any way. In fact, they had very little interaction. She told her mother what had happened, and together they concluded that the only explanation was that Gloria envied my wife’s good standing as a student. My wife claims that she brushed off that first encounter with envy because she was sure she had done nothing wrong, but I suspect she must have felt a little hurt.
When I lived in Italy, many people who did not know me well pitied me. Some thought of me as a good-for-nothing lowlife. How things have changed since I got married and moved to the U.S. I am not rich and I have had much difficulty and heartache in my life, so it is always surprising to be on the receiving end of envy.
Just recently, when I visited my mother in Italy, I would go see old men playing scopa and other card games in front of a community center. One time, I overheard one of the men grumble: how was it that “a guy like that” had a home in the U.S. and the money to take cruises and fly back and forth to Europe while he, who had worked all his life, had “nothing.” I don’t rise to bait like that; I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. But one of the other card players told the man to be quiet and to live and let live.
Envy is even uglier when it’s from your own family. I have a friend in her 60s whose elderly mother openly envies her slim figure, her new husband, and their modest homes on each coast. Another friend came into money from an employment-discrimination lawsuit. This was after being denied a job that could have changed the direction of her life and waiting years for the case to settle. When her husband told his relatives about the payout, some of them griped about the “unfairness” of his wife receiving money “for nothing.”
I have read that the ancient Greeks associated the color green with illness and that it was Shakespeare who connected green with envy (and jealousy). If only the envious could see their skin turn green!