The Poison of Envy: From Facebook to Taxes

Jerry Newcombe

1/30/2013 3:36:00 PM - Jerry Newcombe

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Envy has reared its ugly head and is in the news of late. This is a new story, and in another sense it’s an old one.

Ancient Christians used to talk about “the seven deadly sins”---root sins that cause many other transgressions. Among those seven is the sin of envy.

A new study from Germany unveiled last week found that Facebook often triggers envy among many of its users. Envy especially over the social life and vacations and experiences of others.

Writing for REUTERS (1/22/13), Belinda Goldsmith writes, “Witnessing friends’ vacations, love lives and work successes on Facebook can cause envy and trigger feelings of misery and loneliness, according to German researchers.”

She added, “A study conducted by two German universities found rampant envy on Facebook, the world’s largest social network that now has over one billion users and has produced an unprecedented platform for social comparison.”

“Rampant envy”? One of the researches observed, “We were surprised by how many people have a negative experience from Facebook with envy leaving them feeling lonely, frustrated or angry.”

This story gives me an opportunity to ponder this often overlooked transgression. The Tenth Commandment says “Thou shalt not covet.”

Coveting is simply envy. Envying others for what they have and you don’t.

Billy Graham once said, “Envy takes the joy, happiness, and contentment out of living.” So even his success turn to ashes to the man who gives himself over to envy. Henry Greber said, “One cannot be envious and happy at the same time.”

There’s a tale from ancient Greece about a prized athlete who was so good in the public games that his fellow citizens erected a statue in his honor.

But a bitter rival, consumed with envy, went out each night to attempt to destroy the statue by pushing it off its pedestal; he made very slow progress. Finally, he was successful one night—only it fell on him and crushed him to death.

I find it interesting that the first murder in the Bible was motivated by envy. The first two children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel. Cain didn’t play by God’s rules, so his sacrifice was unacceptable, whereas Abel’s was accepted.

God tells Cain that if he sacrifices in the right way, like his brother Abel, his offering will likewise be accepted. But no. Cain deceives Abel into going out into the field, and he clubs him to death. Envy at work.

History is filled with murders committed because of envy. Much of the history of England , for instance, contains episodes where the brothers, sisters, or other relatives of the monarch ended up in the Tower of London because of envy, lest they rival his or her power. Many of these siblings were murdered simply for having been born. If envy were to be removed from many a Shakespeare drama, the plot would fall apart.

The Smothers Brothers sometimes captured sibling rivalry (envy) in a humorous vein. One brother complained, “Mom always liked you best. She gave you a dog as a pet and only gave me a chicken!” Says the other, “Yeah. But your chicken ate my dog!”

Right now, we see in politics class envy being taken to an art form. But how can we all prosper, basing key political and economic decisions essentially on envy? Think of all the Americans recently who wanted to see the rich “soaked” with higher taxes. For many this was envy at work. So they welcomed the tax cuts to expire so the rich would pay more; and yet some 77% of us saw our taxes go up, not just the very wealthy.

Think about the story of Snow White. A beautiful woman turned herself into a witch through envy; she couldn’t stand the idea that there was someone alive more pretty, more fair, than she was. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?” Initially, the answer was “Lady queen, so grand and tall, Thou art the fairest of them all.” But when Snow White appears, envy begins, and the lovely queen becomes ugly.

Psychologist Betsy Cohen, author of a book about envy called The Snow White Syndrome, says: “We must bring envy ‘into the light.’ It is a dark and hidden emotion but easily disarmed. When unacknowledged, envy is dangerous. Bring it into the light, use the word, and it becomes less potent. We must call it by name—envy.”

Contentment and thankfulness comprise another key to overcoming envy. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion.” That doesn’t mean he can’t strive to increase his portion, but envy only poisons the process.

A third antidote to envy is love. The Bible says, “love does not envy.” Envy always wants something. Love is the opposite of envy because it wants to give.

Well, what if the grass on the other side of the fence really is greener? You should see their water bill.