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Mindful : August 2016
As long as we are the apple of everyone’s eye and have all our needs and desires satisfied, as long as there is nothing at all that we want that we don’t have or can’t have now, life is a wonderful dream. But the instant that we want what YOU have, the seeds of envy are planted. For instance, your body. It’s really, really nice. I bet it would look great on me. The more I think about it, seeing you in that body makes me feel fat (how dare you, by the way?), and I can’t help secretly hoping that under that shirt are some major arm waddles. But, be well. Envy, the passionate longing for something that someone else possesses—an attribute, a quality, or even a thing—is rooted in a sense of inferiority. The Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier concluded that env y comes from people’s ignorance, or lack of belief in, their own gifts. And despite how it seems, env y’s gaze rests less on the thing desired and more on the distress I feel that you have it and I don’t. Or as Aristotle wrote, “Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.” Sometimes envy is fairly benign. We may wish that we had the technological sav vy of a 10-year-old computer whiz, but we probably do not begrudge our nephew for his superior bits and bytes or his nimble fingers. Some envy may be more corrosive. The Queen envied Snow White her beauty and this led to attempted murder, mayhem, and ultimately the Queen’s demise. Richard Nixon’s env y of power caused him to set Watergate in motion, which led to his resignation. And so on. One of the more beguiling things about envy is that it is difficult to notice. Part of this is the nature of denial: We don’t like feeling or having less than. It makes us uncomfortable. And unlike jealousy, which is a heated reaction to a (real or perceived) threat to something you believe is rightfully yours (It was mine, and now YOU have the Precious, and this enrages me), envy doesn’t incite anger quite so obviously. Simmering resent- ment, maybe. But crimes of passion? Not so much. Still, letting envy go unobserved can cause it to run rampant in ways that make experiencing happiness difficult. Listening to envy’s shadowy whispers can make us feel squashed, bitter, living our lives imprisoned by our own beliefs that we are somehow less than others because we don’t possess what they possess. Wanting what we don’t have but what we think others do is a sure-fire way to misery. And if envy focuses on what is unattainable, such as youth, owning the crown jewels, or having different DNA than what you were born with, then there is no way for the envier to win, which can leave us feeling even smaller. The Roots of Envy Like so many of our primal urges, there was a time when envy served a purpose in helping to keep us alive. Way back when, if we missed out on something everyone else in the tribe had or knew, we might find ourselves waking up in the cave alone, and looking delicious. Deeply embedded into our grey matter are brain net- works, habits, and schemes that prevent us from becoming toothpicks for lunching lions. Envy is no longer specifically geared toward our survival but when we imagine ourselves getting the short end of the stick, survival instincts can still kick in. Modern ideas like FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, bathe in the waters of envy. Not receiving an invitation to meet the visiting company bigwigs, for example, could lead you to believe that you’re being passed over for a promotion. Missing out on your friends’ party can heighten your anxiety that others are having more fun than you. But one of the challenges with envious thoughts is that they aren’t always rational. I have a friend who casually remarked feeling → Elaine Smookler has been a mindfulness practitioner for more than 20 years and is on the faculty at The Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto. She is a Registered Psychotherapist and teaches mindfulness to corporate clients through eMindful. 60 mindful August 2016 emotions