Envy & Love: Lent 2022

The good companions Pride & Envy (the woman riding the wolf) in the Penitential Psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 159r

Welcome back to the Lent 2022 series, on virtues and vices. This week is on envy and its remedy, love.

Envy has been defined from ancient times as varying forms of sorrow from another person’s prosperity, and joy in their downfall. In other words, it’s the mirror opposite of weeping when others weep, and rejoicing when others rejoice. Sorrow might throw you off here. But it’s that genuine discomfort, irritation, mournful and malicious comparison of yourself in relation to someone else’s life, success, things, looks, whatever it is. It’s the feeling you get of shameful happiness when they lose that thing you envy, or when life is hard for them. It is embarrassing, impotent, so obviously emerging from our nastiest thoughts and feelings. Chaucer writes in The Canterbury Tales, following a long tradition, that all sins have some level of delight in them, except envy. Think of the smugness of pride, the deliciousness of being furious and reveling in righteous indignation, the obvious pleasures of lust or gluttony. Envy alone has no salty savor.

We often use envy and jealousy interchangeably, but they are actually different. Jealousy entails guarding sedulously what you already feel like you possess: a jealous partner guards their boyfriend or girlfriend possessively and usually wrongly. God is described as a jealous God in the Hebrew Scriptures, because Israel is his, and he looks after it zealously. Envy, on the other hand, always entails something you do not have but desire, and extends beyond covetousness into the personal. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her excellent chapter on envy in The Glittering Vices, notes that the “while the covetous person’s desires focus on having an object for herself, the envious person is at least as concerned with the rival’s status or good standing as a result of having that object. The covetous person delights in acquiring the thing, while the envier delights in the way the redistribution of goods affects her and her rival’s respective positions” (69). Consider the difference between someone buying some nice shoes because they saw someone else wearing them and wanted them, to someone buying nice shoes because they are a brand more expensive than the brand that their friend wears. 

“Envy is ever joined to the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy” writes Francis Bacon. Last week we discussed pride and comparison. But again, pride takes joy in that comparison, reveling in the prideful one’s superiority. Envy always falls short. DeYoung again: “Because of what they lack, enviers feel less admirable and less worthy of love” (Glittering Vices, 69). DeYoung uses the helpful example of Mozart and Salieri in the great film Amadeus. Salieri is eaten alive by his envy of Mozart, causing harm to Mozart when he can, which also morphs into self-hatred. 

Another medieval penitential manual notes envy is seldom confessed to friends or to spiritual advisors. We hide envy, cloaking it in other, more reasonable emotions or rationales. This is probably because it hits too close to home; envy is too closely wrapped up in our deepest personal discontents about our lives. So how does envy reach the light of day?

The medieval penitential manuals have extensive lists of envious behavior. Envy proceeds along a well-worn human path, certain ways of speaking and bitterness of heart, unbinding of friendships, sowing discord, scorn, accusations, putting impediments in the way of those who wish to do right, and finally, concrete acts of malignity like property damage or public slander. 

Rarely do things progress so far in our envy that we burn down their house that we long for, steal the boyfriend or car that we want ourselves, or murder, though the envious do all those things. Instead, for most of us, envy surfaces in the way that we talk about other people when they are not around: what medieval writers labelled, in a wonderful triad of envious language, backbiting, grucching, and murmuration. Jacob’s Well compares the language of the envious person to a hound, that cringes before the person in their sight, then bites them once their back is turned. Chaucer has a wonderful passage on backbiting:

Some man praiseth his neighbor by wicked entent, for he maketh always a wicked knot at least end. Always he maketh a “but” at last end, that is worthy of more blame than is worth all the praising. The second species is that if a man be good and dooth or sayeth a thing to good entent, the backbiter will turn all that goodness upside-down to his malicious intent. The third is to reduce the bounty of his neighbor. The fourth species is if men speak goodness of such a man, then will the backbiter say, “by my faith, such a man is yet better than he,” in dispraising of the man that men praised. The fifth space is this: for to consent gladly and harken gladly to the harm that men speak of other folk.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale

Chaucer’s list makes me laugh and cringe. I’ve seen these things happen in conversation, and I’ve especially seen politicians and public figures use these tactics. Most sadly, I’ve used them myself. The wicked knot at the end of the sentence! Or to silently revel as others criticize. That’s a nice one because I don’t get my hands dirty. Ouch.

I recognize envy in my own life when I want something not to work out for a friend, acquaintance, even a random person online, merely because I wish it were me. If it’s not me, they better not be able to have it or do it either. I recognize my envy in mostly really silly objects: a vacation abroad or a success in writing in my field (how dare you receive recognition, too, for writing about Julian of Norwich, the greatest English mystical writer!), scarcely disguised satisfaction when someone else argues with someone I too argue with. These examples might lead you to notice, as the medieval writers recognize, envy makes you really dumb. Your judgment sours, and you begrudge things that are ridiculous.

As it turns out, such feelings are far less about those people than they are in the end about myself. DeYoung writes, “spite at the unworthiness of the rival also works to distract from and disguise the envier’s own sense of unworthiness. The commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The envier can do neither” (Glittering Vices, 79). In my envy, I disguise my real feelings: real sadness over not having the income or freedom as a parent of young children to travel like I long to, real insecurity over my skills as a writer and doubt I will ever succeed as I wish to, real worries that I’m not as right as I want to think I am. It’s easier to lash out at the other than to deal with my own feelings and fears and perhaps the truth. It’s easier to feel like I’ve been cheated of what’s rightfully my own and not theirs.

Have we now piled on enough yet? Onto the remedy.

Unsurprisingly, love is the remedy. To love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And in the case of envy, both neighbor-love and self-love are either nonexistent or severely lacking. In the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer writes, “First is the love of God principal and loving of his neighbor as himself, for truthfully one cannot be without the other.” And our medieval friends do not mince words about who our neighbor is. From Chaucer’s Parson: 

“Also in the name of neighbor is comprehended thy enemy… certes, our enemies have more need of love than our friends…in that same deed have we remembrance of the love of Jesus Christ that died for his enemies. For right as the devil is discomfited by humility, right so is he wounded to the death by love of our enemy.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale

This love, medieval writers tell us, is tenderhearted. It weeps when others weep, and rejoices when they rejoice, rather than the twisted opposites of envy. It’s softhearted and helpful. It is truly the love of 1 Corinthians 13. The Book of Vices and Virtues and Jacob’s Well, both penitential manuals from a similar source, use a beautiful but challenging extended metaphor from scripture that we are all members of Christ’s body. We are common in his image and likeness. We have all been baptized in the precious blood of Jesus Christ. 

This body imagery does a lot of heavy lifting: cultivating love for self and neighbor through our shared identity as beloved and in the process of sanctification: “Then should we much love each other, that God loveth and praiseth so much and maketh so worthy.” The Book in particular uses it to great effect. In the Body, “the good and the wise forebear the foolish and the feeble, right as the bones beareth the tender flesh.” We are not all bones, winkingly says the Book. The quality is forbearance, that particular kind of patience and compassion for your neighbor, that you often also need to ask for yourself. Similarly, there’s a bodily love and mutuality that the Book identifies in defending your neighbor rather than tearing him down: “When a foot stumbleth or slideth, the other helpeth it anon; when someone tries to smite the head, the hand intervenes and takes the blow instead. We are all rightful members of the body.” When a person is healthy, such actions are reflexive and natural.

I find this metaphor interesting and challenging. But as we all know, it’s nearly impossible to just look at someone you envy and go, “okay, guess I’ll just love them now!” The old habits remain, so we must tear down those old habits. One of the misperceptions of labelling vices and then particular virtues as their “remedies” means that we may imagine love “fixing” our envy problem, which it does in the long run, because of love itself. But these analogies are descriptive rather than proscriptive. Talking about it does not make it so. Cool, how do I get to that reflexive point of protecting the wounded foot, instead of smirking when the toe gets stubbed because I wanted its shoes for myself? How can I begin to love instead of envy?

Jacob’s Well tells a story about the envious man, who is out in a figurative storm desperately searching for shelter. He wanders towards a little cottage with a light in the window, knocks, and begs to be let in. It is the House of Righteousness, and Righteousness refuses to let him in, because he is not righteous. He gets to another house, warm and cozy, a shelter from the ravages of envy’s storm. It’s Truth’s house, but Truth refuses to let him in because he has not been telling the truth about himself, about his own desires, and especially about the person he envies. He wanders on, growing wearier and frightened. He gets to the House of Peace. Surely Peace will take him in! But Peace sees his inner turmoil and refuses. But Peace offers a word—“go to the House of Mercy. She will take you in and give you shelter.” And the man wanders off, and finally comes upon Mercy’s cottage. And she lets him enter even in his state of raging envy and untruth. 

When we are wrestling with the heavy burden of envy, we must seek out the House of Mercy, and only God’s mercy can teach us how to love (or practice any virtue, for that matter). Charity is the unitive fire, the bright kindling that allows us to warm one another and ourselves. But because love—or friendship, as many of the manuals define love—is so difficult to do well and truthfully, we especially need the aid of mercy. Pray. Jacob’s Well suggests reading the penitential psalms on a regular basis to help reach for mercy (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). (And by the way, I cannot believe how many times I’ve quoted Jacob’s Well approvingly in this episode, because it is often off-the-rails bonkers. Be proud of me, for last week I resisted sharing an absolutely disgusting humility anecdote from that book.)

DeYoung also offers some ideas to combat envy. One is to avoid comparison entirely by doing secret acts of love, either things that are too small and insignificant to be noticed by anyone, or not ever telling your good deeds. She notes that “the envier needs to learn what it feels like to do something good for another, without her usual frame of reference in which her performance will be noted, tallied up, and made the basis of comparison between persons” (83). She also suggests that the envious person seek out noncompetitive activities with others that are mutually good, like listening to music, taking a walk, looking at art. These acts that saturate one with beauty and companionship are good antidotes to envy, and good beginnings to seeing someone beyond the threat they pose to you.

Watch the tongue. This is where envy often emerges. How do I speak of others, especially online? Criticism is often necessary, but do I take pleasure in it? What kind, if so? Interrogate your motives when you speak ill of others, even if you’re simply repeating someone else.  

As someone who has struggled with envy at times, I know a good help for me. Recognizing and smiling at my own beloved absurdity nips envy in the bud. Envy, like Pride or Wrath, is very serious. It does not like to be laughed at. But when I begin to feel the familiar malice of envy, the listless irritation, the delight in hearing someone slammed or mocked or criticized in conversation, I know I need to laugh at myself. St. Francis of Assisi famously called his body “Brother Ass,” and while he was too severe on his body, following the spirit of the age, I think he had a good idea. Saying, with love to yourself, you little ass—not asshole, no abusive language here, just a stubborn, unspiritual little donkey—frees us from the utter seriousness we impose upon ourselves in our times of sin. It’s also easy, once you get in the habit, because envy truly is often ridiculous and funny. I don’t own travelling to Europe or Julian of Norwich. Why begrudge them, Sister Ass? And I still want to go to Europe but I also feel a little freer.

Ultimately, the envious person needs a reframing of their identity, and from whence their value comes. The envious person needs the reminder of humility of last week, blended with the love of this week. We are unconditionally loved, and naturally little and limited, and the Lord looks upon our creation and loves us as we are. We remind ourselves of this, our deepest core identity. 

Next week we will think about wrath and its various remedies. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.

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