How to Free Yourself from Envy
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The tenth commandment is normally reduced to “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” with the ninth being “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Biblically, not only are the ninth and tenth combined, the wording gets a lot more elaborate: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) Very easy, very clear right? Do not be envious—I got it. Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller (620 BC—564 BC) who created fables that delivered important life lessons. Aesop’s fable “The Dog and His Reflection” is a classic anti-envy story: The dog is holding a bone in his mouth. When he sees his reflection in the water, he thinks it is another dog with a bone in its mouth. The dog wants not only his bone but the other dog’s bone as well. So, he lunges at his reflection with his teeth to grab the other dog’s bone. In doing so, his bone drops into the water and is lost, and all the dog ends up with is a mouth full of water.
Again, the tenth commandment and Aesop’s “The Dog and His Reflection” are both very clear admonitions to not be envious or greedy. The commandment states ‘do not envy’ with the explicit caveat, ‘or you will be in trouble with God for breaking one of his commandments.’ The Aesop fable, however, tries a different tact in showing how you will lose by being envious, not by supernatural retribution, but rather as a logical outcome of folly (like a hangover after drinking too much). The funny thing is that while these ancient imperatives are well known and clearly understood, they are wildly ignored. In fact, I would argue our current culture is drunk with envy, and it is clear society is suffering from chronic envy hangovers—over and over like any addict.
In one of my favorite Zen parables, a famous Zen Master was living in a treehouse in a very remote area. An extremely wealthy and well-educated prince had put together a large caravan and spent weeks traveling to visit the Zen Master for a teaching, as it was the prince’s ambition to become very wise. When the prince finally arrived, he yelled up at the treehouse and explained that he was a great prince seeking wisdom all over the world and that he came to see if the Master had something wise to teach him. The Zen Master replied from his treehouse, “Be kind to everyone!” The prince became instantly angry as he was insulted by the Zen Master’s reply. The prince then yelled, “I can’t believe I traveled all this way to see you. Clearly, you are not a great Master. Be kind to everyone? That is so simple even a small child knows that!” The Zen Master then coolly replied, “If it was so simple how come a wise prince cannot do it?” Therein lies the truth—seemingly simple truths like ‘do not envy thy neighbor’s goods’ become awesomely complex if one were actually to attempt to not ‘envy thy neighbor’s goods.’ The truth is that it takes dedicated practice to get good at avoiding envy.
Is it worth it? Should one really work as hard on the tenth commandment as they do on fitness or health or their careers? Yes, because even though you might not believe in supernatural retribution, Aesop made it clear that the price of envy is loss. One of the biggest losses one instantly faces when they are envious is the loss of self-worth. Every time a person envies another person’s life, wealth, or appearance they are also telling themselves that their own life and person is substandard. Over time, envy can deliver brutal low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Now mind you, envy is not the same as its very similar benign cousin ‘aspiration.’ To see a successful brain surgeon or tech company founder and to then be inspired to work harder at school to achieve something great is healthy. Looking up to role models and being inspired to develop positive qualities in yourself is a great and healthy thing. To feel covetous is an entirely different animal, and it often brings another set of emotions such as jealousy, greed, anger, insecurity, and powerlessness.
There are some great ways to detox from envy. The first step is to make the tenth commandment an actual project like losing weight or getting in shape. The second step is to practice gratitude. The best practice I ever learned is that as soon as you wake up think of five things you are grateful for in your life. It’s a life changer. Gratitude really is the antidote to envy. Lastly, work to see the vanity in things that our culture overvalues. Gold watches will never help you when you are lonely. Mansions will not take cancer away. Executive job titles will not bring back a loved one who has passed away.
Envy is tough, especially in our consumer culture that is always striving to make us feel like we need to buy tons of things to feel self-worth. The ancient tenth commandment and Aesop fable “The Dog and His Reflection” clearly show that coping with envy is part of the human condition and will most likely always be part of being a person. However, practicing gratitude and seeing the vanity in things can go a long way in helping.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.