Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Envy and Us

Guest Speaker

Unitarian Universalist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, December 27, 2009                                                              Alto, CA

A revised version of this sermon was delivered Jan. 3, 2010, at the UU Society of Sacramento.  I encourage reflective  responses to the sermon among members of either congregation as well as other readers.

Hymns (in Singing the Living Tradition):

“We Three Kings,” “This Is My Song”; “Wake Now, My Senses”

Reflective Reading:

“The Work of Christmas,” by Howard Thurman (#615 in SLT; change ‘brothers’ to ‘peoples.’)


Good morning, and Merry Christmas.   It’s good to be back here in Palo Alto, to see many of you again, and to meet those who have joined since my last visit. To the first-time visitors and guests, welcome.   I’m happy to be working with my friend V. J. Mohan, and to see my old friend and your new assistant minister for religious education, Daniel Harper.   I’d like to celebrate this congregation for making the wise commitment to provide a sabbatical leave for your parish minister, Amy.  A sabbatical yields benefits of deepening and renewal which sustain the minister and enhance her ministry with the congregation.

I am the first of many guest ministers you will hear during the sabbatical of your parish minister.  I’m glad I’m going first, as they are gifted and eloquent preachers.  If I had to follow them I’d resent them terribly.

On this last Sunday of the year, I’m here to talk about envy. Envy is a pernicious pest of the spiritual life.

Did you get nicer gifts than I did this holiday?  Did you give better gifts than I did?  Are you a more thoughtful, generous, or creative gift giver?  Grrr!

Envy gives us unease and the urge to wonder:  Does someone else have a better body, car, house, spouse, job or singing voice than I do? Envy is a painful feeling of discontent with yourself.  It is resentment of the good fortune of others, and resentment of their desirable traits.[1]  Shakespeare called envy “the green sickness.”[i]

To envy others is to worry and agonize and bear grudges that others are more accomplished, fortunate, attractive, or financially well off than you are.  The ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote that the envious farmer worries that “the crops are ever more abundant in other people’s fields” than in one’s own.  (Ars Amatoria, Book I).

Envy is a failure to be thankful for the blessings of life.  It is a failure to praise the beauty of life.  Envy is a sickness of the soul, a green sickness.

The modern writer Angus Wilson put it this way:  “Envy is … never ceasing in its appetite…[It] knows no gratification, [only] endless self-torment.  It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape.”   I wish I could write like that!

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Western world, which date back to classical times in Greece and Rome but were developed and made famous by the Catholic church.  Here’s the whole list:  lust, gluttony, sloth, anger, pride, and envy.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, what makes the deadly sins deadly… is not that they are terrible crimes.  They are not crimes, but vices, states of mind. They are attitudes and emotions.  Such emotions are dangerous because they can lead us to do things that harm others, or harm ourselves.[ii]  Yet even if we don’t act on our feelings of envy, it can hurt our souls; it can shrink our hearts.

According to Joseph Epstein [iii],  “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.  Sloth may not seem that enjoyable, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures, and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights.”  Envy, however, is the sin that “people are least likely to want to own up to.  [To admit to envy] is to admit that one is ungenerous, mean, small hearted.”

“Most of us could still sleep decently if accused of any of the other deadly sins; but to be accused of envy would be … distressing” because it’s an accusation about our character.

Darn–I wish I’d thought of that.  Then preachers would be quoting me in their sermons!

The noticeable kinds of envy in America are the envy of money, power, looks and status.  It seems to me that our main focus is on money—how much you have, how easily and fairly you got it, and what you can do with it.

Envy is one of the motivating forces in a consumer society.  Envy makes it important to keep up with others by spending.  Consumer envy is fuel for our economic engine.  Since active consumers can spur innovation, one might defend envy as an economic incentive, right up there with greed.  Yet Americans used to frown on envy, and were expected to repress it.

Before the 20th century, ministers, authors, journalists, and advice columnists preached against envy.  They advised people to accept their place in life, to practice the virtue of contentment.  To be content with your social class and your financial position was to accept the divinely inspired social order.  To envy those better off than you was to question God’s will.

In the late 19th century, women and working class people were the targets of such moralizing against envy.  For example, in the 1890s, an advice columnist in the Ladies’ Home Journal asked these questions:  “How much time do we give to studying our fashionable neighbor’s hat, or to making cheap, sleazy imitations of her [name-brand] confections?”  And:  “How much of that discontent … found on our faces has grown out of years of craving more costly clothes than we can afford?”

Moralizers worried about letting country folks leave the farm to see the temptations of city living.  They might become unhappy with their lot in life.  Books blamed the urge to emulate the rich as the cause for many a young woman’s fall into prostitution.  In 1914 Reginald Kauffman wrote a book called The Girl that Goes Wrong.  The book includes phony profiles of young women who fell into prostitution because of their urge to emulate the rich.  One chapter blames it on a fur boa:  “The Girl that Wanted Ermine.”[iv]

Social discontent and envy were dangerous emotions.  Yet in the span of four decades, envy got liberated in America.  According to historian Susan J. Matt, between 1890 and 1930 envy got a makeover. Before then, the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” used to have the tone of a put-down.  Not anymore.

Mass production made consumer goods widely affordable.  Mass merchandising made them desirable and available. Department stores, mail-order catalogues and magazine advertising gave poor and middle-class people a view of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. To envy others became acceptable, and if you were well-off it was no longer a bother or a threat or for others to envy you, it was desirable.  For example, in 1924 an advertisement for Butterick dress patterns proclaimed:  “Every woman’s wish—clothes that other women will envy.”[v] An early ad for Palmolive soap asked the questions: “The Envied Girl—Are you one?  Or are you still seeking the secret of charm?”[vi]  The world of merchandising said:  don’t suppress your envy; give into it.  Feed it.

Envy’s reputation underwent a similar makeover for men in the United States in the years between 1890 and 1930.  In particular, male business writers advised that a successful man needed a wife who was socially ambitious, and who kept up with trends in fashion, entertainment, and home decorating.  By this time, male dominated workplaces had adopted an egalitarian climate.  To show up one’s colleagues was to violate the ideal of teamwork, and overt job-envy was not acceptable.  Success and status in America came to be defined less by your occupation than by what your job allowed you to buy.  You kept up with the Joneses—and kept ahead of them—not by who you were but through what you could buy, where you could vacation, and so on.

Economist Juliet Schor’s term for keeping up with the Joneses is “competitive consumption.”[vii]    Schor argues that in the game of competitive consumption, the winners make up a tiny group, and this group includes credit card companies.  They market their services heavily.  I used to get at least one credit card offer per week in my mail box until it became possible to request removal from mailing lists.  That’s over 50 new credit cards I could have applied for every year!

The losers in competitive consumption include the many Americans who are overextended on credit.  The average unpaid credit card balance is about $7,000 per household.  Credit card interest rates range from 20 to 30% [and so called payday loan rates are above 40% in many states].  Late-payment penalties are steep.  Credit card companies have marketed their cards heavily to those who are least able to pay, such as low-income people and new college students.  In 1980, 200,000 individuals or families declared personal bankruptcy.  This year (2009) is likely to end with a total of nearly 1,400,000 personal bankruptcies.  While medical catastrophes play a significant part in family bankruptcies, so do credit card expenses and unrealistically large mortgage loans. How great is the misery?  In November, over 300,000 American households received foreclosure notices.  December likely saw another 300,000 foreclosures.

The burst of the real estate bubble last year has revealed the disaster that awaits those of us overextended on credit, whether by our own mistakes or the manipulation and hype of the lending companies.

Since the early 1970s, the average new house built in the United States has doubled in size.  [viii]  Perhaps we need the extra space, but the average family is smaller now than it was three decades ago.  And most of us are home less than before, because we’re working more hours.  Compared to the1970s, most households with two adults have to send both adults into the work force in order to maintain their standard of living.

It’s important to say that it’s not a sin to be well off, or comfortable, or able to buy what you need or even to buy what gives you pleasure.  Woody Allen said:  “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”[ix]

The problem is that we can be well off, yet still be unhappy.  Being thought of as doing better than others does not enhance quality of life, unless your idea of quality is to be looking over your shoulder to see who’s gaining on you.

Likewise, consumer choice is not a bad thing.  Yet in a status-conscious consumer culture, it can be hard to know what choices give pleasure, and what choices are merely responses to feelings of emptiness or inadequacy.

How do we know what gives true pleasure, and not just a momentary fix?  For one thing, according to Juliet Schor, many Americans would rather not worry so much about making money; we would rather have more time for leisure.  We would rather have more time, and closer connections with others.  Her message echoes that of a bumper sticker:  “More fun, less stuff.”

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had a nice big house on a one-acre lot.  A house with a swimming pool was a rarity in small towns in the Midwest (like my hometown), but we had one.  My parents drove gas-guzzlers:  a Cadillac and an Oldsmobile.  I suppose we were envied for some of this.  If we were, it was lost on me.

We were the Joneses, literally.  But why would it be any fun to keep up with us?  I envied the kids with parents who were younger, and healthier, and happier.  I envied the kids with parents who could spend more time with them, envied those with happier home lives.  If I had seen a bumper sticker that said, “More fun, less stuff” way back then, I may not have had an idea of what it was referring to, even though it was speaking directly to our situation.

One person who understands this message is Matthew Fox, who heads the Institute for Creation Spirituality in Oakland.  According to Fox, envy is passion that is misdirected.  It is love gone wrong.

Envy can recognize quality in others, but it resents it.  An envious person pays attention to others, but “sees [them] as a problem.”[x]   Where love promotes unity and connection, envy yields isolation and separateness.

Fox writes that attitudes like envy and greed hinder our relationships with others.  They turn us away from our responsibilities to the natural environment.  Greed and envy are damage our spirits.   Hence, people should not be scolded for feeling envy, we should be healed of it.  We should be liberated from it.   The opposite of envy is an attitude of praise.  Fox writes:  “Both [those who praise others and those who envy others] do recognize the good in other people.  But one appreciates [that goodness] enough to honor it; the other wants to do it in”[xi] –or at least to outdo it.

Envy is a distraction from what is truly good and beautiful.  Too often we envy the qualities that don’t deserve our attention and ignore gifts that merit our praise.  We forget our blessings and forget to be grateful.  Fox writes that what is sinful about envy is that it keeps us from seeing the goodness around us, the goodness in others, and the goodness in ourselves. Envy shrinks our hearts.

Envy is the opposite of praise.  So the practice of praise must be an antidote for envy.  Envy is a poison that saps our capacity for gratitude.   So the practice of gratitude must be another antidote for envy. A way to heal ourselves of envious emotions is the practice of praising what’s good, and the cultivation of gratitude for the blessings of life.

We must recognize what’s good, appreciate it, and celebrate it.  Good teachers and parents know that children thrive on praise, recognition, and appreciation of their gifts and efforts.  They prosper from the affirmation of their very being.  If it helps children to hear praise, then it can’t hurt for adults to hear it also—to hear more often what is likable and lovable about us.

In talking about this sermon, V. J. Mohan reminded me of the term mudita, which is an ancient Pali word that means appreciative joy.  It’s considered one of the four heavenly abodes or states of mind in Buddhism though originally the heavenly abodes are from a Hindu source.  Mudita is the attitude of joy at seeing the good fortune or happiness of another person; it’s the opposite of envy.

I must confess that sometimes when I praise another for his or her gifts or accomplishments, my insecurity wants to let envy creep into my heart. It’s unlikely that I’ll get rid of it forever. The poet Ovid said:  “Envy feeds on the living.  It ceases [only] when we are dead.”  (Armorum, Book I). I’m not sure we can eliminate all traces of envy from human life.  But perhaps we can weaken its hold on us . . .  by cultivating praise, appreciation and gratitude in our lives, our families, our congregations and our communities.

It takes practice to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and good fortune of others.  It takes practice to appreciate our own virtues, celebrate our accomplishments, and give thanks for our blessings.  Some of you are better at this than I am.  I’ll try not to hold that against you.

When the green face of envy appears, I will try to remember what I can be grateful for, try to notice the blessings of life, to affirm that life itself is a blessing.

Rather than feeding envy, let us all nourish our spirits.

Let us give thanks for the gift of life, and the gift of every new day, all through the year.  So may it be.  Amen.


[1] Jealousy and envy are mirror images of each other.  Jealousy is the worry that someone you count on, or something you own, will be taken from you.  Envy is the worry that others have what you don’t have.

[i] William Shakespeare.  Antony & Cleopatra.  III. 2. vi.

[ii] Raymond Mortimer.  Introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins.  New York:  William Morrow & Co., 1962.  P. xiii.

[iii] Joseph Epstein.  Snobbery: The American Version.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.  Quoted in “Context.”

[iv] Susan J. Matt.  P.  38.

[v] Susan J. Matt.  P. 14.

[vi] Susan J. Matt.  Keeping Up with the Joneses:  Envy in American Consumer Society 1890-1930.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.  P. 49.

[vii] Juliet Schor.  Do Americans Shop Too Much?  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000.  P. 8.

[viii] Claire Brown in Juliet Schor.  P. 58.

[ix] Woody Allen.  Without Feathers.  1977.  Cited in “The Living Pulpit”.

[x] Matthew Fox.  Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh.  New York:  Harmony Books, 1999.  P. 316.

[xi] Matthew Fox.  P. 316.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I enjoyed your sermon! Here’s my favorite quotation on the subject: ‘It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.’ -Oscar Wilde

Also, I’m inclined to think pride, or ego, is just the mirror image of envy, when you think you’re smarter, or richer, or better looking, etc. than others. It’s the comparisons to others that become so destructive, regardless of which direction the comparisons run.

Comment by John Abbott

The sermon was excellent and brought to mind this book from Bertrand Russell I still read from time to time. Envy is the subject of Chapter 6:

You approach the topic from a somewhat different perspective, but still sift through to a couple of essential and practical nuggets: the antidote for envy is honoring others for their gifts, and gratitude in what one has.

Comment by Don Thornberry

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