I had a neighbor once who worked in a local automotive factory. He regularly teased me about how I, as a teacher, had weekends and summers off. Growing tired of his ribbing, I challenged him to count up the number of days he worked each year after deducting his own weekends off, paid vacation time, and plant shutdown days. You can probably imagine where this is headed. After doing the calculations, the total number of days we worked were pretty similar.
I didn’t bother to educate him regarding the number of unpaid hours I work at home preparing for class and grading papers; although, I never once saw him bring home to work on whatever part of the car he was responsible for assembling. I chose to become a teacher – an English teacher at that – with full knowledge of the time I would be required to spend on my craft if I intended to be any good at it. I like to say that we all make choices as young adults as to how we will spend our adult work years. I don’t question or begrudge anyone else’s choice. Why should anyone begrudge me mine?
You may think that the story of my neighbor’s teasing was a set up to extract sympathy for teachers’ heavy workloads or to say something about unions – teachers’ or automotive – or maybe to defend clinging to a school calendar designed to sync with agricultural seasons. You’d be incorrect on all counts. This post is about one of the most pernicious and soul-poisoning of the seven deadly sins: Envy.
I’ve never understood why people study other people’s career choices or lives, in general, in order to take some measure of their own success or happiness. By the way, teachers do it all the time. We compare schedules, duties, class rosters, evaluations, etc. in order to determine if we are somehow being cheated or being taken advantage of. I hate that mindset. Another’s good fortune, success, or happiness should have no negative effect on my own.
In what I think is one of his most salient observations, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide.” As much as I use and enjoy various forms of social media, they can be inexhaustible sources of envy. “Why can’t I lose fifteen pounds like her?” “Why can’t I fly to the Florida Keys in February?” “Why aren’t my kids as accomplished or as adorable as my friends’ children?” “Why am I eating meatloaf and canned corn again instead of something from the photos of culinary porn that everyone else seems to be feasting on?” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Even worse, perhaps, although not listed among the seven deadlies, is the opposite of envy: schadenfreude, which is the pleasure one takes in another’s misfortune or unhappiness. I’m not so self-deluded to deny my own smug wallowing in this manifestation of some of man’s worst angels (the recent election comes to mind), but I’m trying to rise above it.
Oftentimes, the universe seems to operate according to an incomprehensible set of rules that run counter to what we might think of as logical or fair. For example, the notions that it is better to give than to receive, to kill with kindness, to forgive and forget, and to be truly happy for others’ good fortune – as paradoxical as they appear to be on the surface – prove themselves to be true over and over again.
Trust me, my own magnanimity is far superior in the world of the hypothetical than it is in reality, but like everybody, I’m a work-in-progress, and as I said, I’m trying.
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