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“Love is as fierce as death; envy is as hard as the netherworld” (Song of Songs, 8:6). Envy is one of the most intense emotions. We often try to hide it, even from ourselves, because it is such an unpleasant feeling, a direct hit on our selves. Being made of desires to receive pleasure, envy makes us feel that we are not only not receiving, but that others are receiving what we are denied. Nothing is harder for our ego to tolerate than the feeling that we are robbed by others, that they are somehow better, more powerful, more successful than us.
My teacher used to say that for himself, he would love it if he could wear nothing but pajamas. It’s comfy, it’s got big pockets to fit anything you might need, it’s warm in the winter and pleasant in the summer; what more could you ask than to wear pajamas? But we can’t wear pajamas because people will gossip about us; they will not appreciate us if we don’t dress according to the social dress code, so we have no choice. In order not to be humiliated, we wear uncomfortable clothes and do what other people want us to do. Therefore, envy, and the fear of being humiliated, dictate our entire lives.
However, envy doesn’t have to be negative. It makes us envy what others have and that we would like to have, as well, but if we wanted to have positive things, then envy would increase our motivation to obtain those positive things. By positive things I mean things that embolden us, that strengthen our society, increase our solidarity, and boost our sense of self-fulfillment. For this to happen, our society needs to nurture pro-social values. When society values people who contribute to society, who make people happier and more connected to each other, then everyone begins to envy them and wants to become like them.
In this way, using envy, we turn society from competitive and abusive to supportive and inclusive. When people compete at being kind, there is no end to the achievements they can make. Moreover, when they perceive helping others realize themselves as an expression of their kindness, it helps everyone become the best they can be, and at the same time want to contribute their achievements to improving their society even more. There is no end to the achievements that such a society can make.
Therefore, envy can be bad or good, depending on the values that we envy. If we teach ourselves to value what is good for all of us, our envy will become an engine for happiness.