Aristotle defines envy as desiring the good of another, especially when that good is one I especially prize. For example, though I might be aware that a friend is a better guitar player, or better general contractor, or better painter than me, and this might not effect me in any way… It does not incur any envy.
However, I like to draw. I want to be excellent at it. Here, when I find out someone is a better a better graphite draftsmen, I might feel envious… I might want the good of another.
This feeling is, for Roman Catholics, one of the “seven deadly sins,” and has been considered bad in most cultures and most places in most times, yet it springs up almost naturally upon experiencing the excellence of other human beings. What is to be done?
I’ll give the answer I have heard most often. That is, when facing of the excellence and superiority of others, to comfort oneself by saying, “Sure, they’re good with that skill, but they’re probably terrible other skills. They may be great with people, but they’re probably bad at organization. Therefore, they have their gifts, I have mine,” To say this is to sort of assume that everyone has a relatively equal set of strengths and weaknesses.
However, I personally became disillusioned with the easy answer as soon as I realized a simple fact: While it is true that other people may have a portfolio that includes some skills I lack, while I have a portfolio that includes some skills they lack, there are some people whose portfolio, in total, includes a larger number of superior skills my portfolio, in total. They are not only superior draftsmen, for instance, they are more skilled with people and great at organization, and a dozen other things.
These people that are beyond me in all respects in all the skills I highly prize, and many other skills to boot. I just do not compete.
Is envy therefore inevitable? Is the excellence of other people something to be ignored lest we fall into jealousy and envy; or perhaps, to be faced, but with inevitable results of envy?
I think there is at least one way out of envy, one way of dealing with the excellence of other people. It presupposes the accuracy and truth of the words of Jesus, and the moral example of his life, so take it for what it’s worth.
I’ll give one principle, and one practical tip.
1. Paul speaks of the “body of Christ.” The idea of “the body” is something like this: Everyone has their place in the whole schema of humanity. Everyone’s place is their own — and no one else’s. Each person, considered as a whole, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, is needed to fulfill a role designed for someone with exactly that set of strengths and weaknesses.
If this is true, then each person, no matter how superior or inferior the overall portfolio, cannot successfully serve another individual’s role.
No one can serve another person’s role, even if they are apparently more qualified or less qualified… Qualification is insanely complex, and has been predetermined! Your role is valuable because it is unique and custom designed for you, with all of your strengths and all of your foibles.
This means that excellence is available to each person… Not in any one skill, in drawing, or building houses, or public speaking… But excellence is available to each person as the unique combination of talents, skills, weaknesses, geographical location, even place in history; Excellence is available to you as yourself.
For example, the excellence available to me is that of being Keith Buhler. Yes, I am the only Keith E. Buhler; But therein is satisfied my competitive desire to be the best at something, anything. To put it cheesily, I can be the best me there is.
You might say this is, in fact, cheesy. I answer, it is only cheesy because it is oft-repeated. Perhaps it is oft-repeated because it is true.
I suggest there is no alternative to “being the best you you can be.” Consider this: To desire to be or have the skills of someone else is actually to neglect your own, and to therefore miss out on the goods that are assigned to you. If I try to be Matt Anderson, not only will I fail at being Matt Andeson, I will fail at being myself.
The highest conceivable good, for each person, is to forsake attention to the excellence of others (except as encouragement) and attend to the excellence of oneself. It is like I am an Olympic runner and I envy the skier for his ability to ski. I have no need of that skill! All that is left for me is to focus on running, and running well.
There is literally room in the body of Christ for all manner of skills, and all manners of portfolio of skills, in the form of individual human beings. Each human being, if Jesus’ teaching is correct, is necessary, and live their life (or “perform their role”) well or poorly. To live well, it is necessary to commit full attention to one’s own role, talents, and tasks. In that commitment lies the futility, the senselessness, and the inevitable withering away of envy.
2. The second point is a simple way of applying the above truth, and it might actually convince a heart to stop envying. It’s a little trick a mentor of mine taught me. He suggested, “Do not compare yourself to others. But rather compare yourself to yourself, yesterday.” In other words, see if you are doing better today than you were yesterday. If not, long to more fully actualize your role. If so, be content.
With this trick, we can each acquire and strengthen the habit of paying attention to our own limited roles, attending to the ways we are improving, and the ways we need to improve further. With this trick, we can practice forsaking attention to the (relative) superiority or inferiority of anyone else. What does it matter? If you are growing at doing your own job better, then you’re doing well.
That is my best guess, right now, at how to deal with the excellence of others. I welcome thoughts or critiques.