We Americans are an extremely competitive gang. We love sports, we love cutthroat business, and we are deeply envious of one another. It is especially hard to keep our envy in check during the holiday season when Madison Avenue stokes the fires of “I want one like yours” in each of us. Indeed most advertising plays on our envy. The actor in the commercial is handsome, dashing, well-dressed, and everything we want to be. AND it’s all because he is drinking the right drink right now. Our envy modules engage and then we want some of what he’s drinking so we can be like him instead of our own pathetic selves.
I do not know of a single spiritual tradition that teaches that envy is a good thing. In fact, not only is envy on the list of “seven deadly sins”, it is also amongst the Ten Commandments. “And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Deuteronomy 5: 21.
But somewhere there is a fine line between wanting your neighbor’s donkey (or Lexus) and wanting to be like Jesus or the Buddha. This leads me to this crackpot theory for spiritual living: our base impulse towards envy may serve as the beginning point for inspiration. It might be okay to engage in a little Buddha envy.
For example, I have recently begun to study voice again for the first time in many years. In a previous post I wrote a little bit about the fear that rises in me when I try to sing seriously. (somehow singing in bars holds no fear, thank God!) As part of my own journey towards being a better singer, I have been listening to lots of really wonderful singers, live when I can, and via recording more often. And you bet, a little envy springs up (I mean good heavens, how does she do that?), but mostly I am just inspired and then I sing better.
Similarly, being in the presence of those whose spiritual life seems more together than mine is also helpful. That is why I love to go to monasteries to pray and sing with monks and I believe that is why many of us love reading about the lives of various saints and spiritual teachers. This is particularly important when my own prayer life seems dry or stale. My desire then to be like my colleague or friend whose prayer life seems vibrant can often transport me past myself into renewed practice and prayer. A great sermon can bring me via my base envy to a place of spiritual expectation and growth.
Got envy? for things? for ____? Will that desire to be or have what someone else has become a spiritual trap or an inspirational stepping stone? Check it out and send your responses to: “crackpot theories for spiritual living”, a.k.a the comments section.
Note: I will forever be indebted to the brilliant Phil Porter for his usage of “crackpot theory”.