An Exercise in Envy

My wife and I, along with some friends, vacationed in the Mediterranean a few years back and while we were touring through the country of Turkey I kept noticing that the people there were consistently wearing and carrying a small blue and black figurine. Some were like small medallions on necklaces and some were made into rings and some were just carried in their hands. Of course, since the bus driver also had a large one hanging from his rearview mirror, I had to ask our tour guide what it was. He called it an “evil eye”. Since the locals seem to use it almost religiously, and since we were in a predominantly Muslim country, I was very curious. He was adamant that it was a non-religious icon which intrigued me even more.

Now that we are about to vacation in Turkey again in a few months, I thought I would do more research on the subject which also inspired me to dive a little deeper. It turns out that the Evil Eye is not religious at all but is based instead in regional superstition, similar to how we use a rabbit’s foot here in America, only instead of just bringing good luck it also gives bad luck to your enemies. The evil-eye is one of the most prevalent superstitions in many Mediterranean cultures including the Italians.

Its roots are based in envy, i.e., someone feels envious of another person, even without a malicious intent behind it, thereby bringing bad luck upon the person being envied. It is believed that the evil eye can manifest itself in the victim physically via headache and/or general malaise or it may bring about acts of misfortune. Envy, of course, is a completely natural emotion, and if you happen to believe in the Seven Deadly Sins business, well you know it is one of the biggies. But why? What is so horrible about envy?

Aside from it just not being very nice to covet your neighbor’s job, success, wife, husband, family, looks, life, whatever…, there can be very personal effects turned inward as well. Envy can prevent us from working on ourselves and our own goals. We can become so fixated on what someone else does or has (or seems to do or have) that we may neglect the importance of working on improving ourselves and our own situations. Or it can simply plant seeds of doubt that we are not good enough, not smart enough, or do not have the right genetics or connections.

Literally, envy can be one of the most potent causes of unhappiness because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but he may also wish to inflict misfortune on others. Possessing malicious envy is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. If you allow yourself to swim in materialistic desire, it begins a sort of self-destructive emptiness inside oneself that completely blinds you to the things to which God has provided to you. It is the root of pride, vanity, narcissism and eventually mental illness.

In its most malicious form, envy can even lead someone to try to destroy another’s happiness — but that extreme is not what happens with most of us. And yes, I say us. I am certainly not immune to an occasional bout of benign jealously, especially when someone shows up at the gun range with an expensive new rifle or a fancy Hensoldt rifle scope. Several years ago I began reading about various different religions and comparing the similarities, I was immediately drawn to a Buddhist concept of acknowledging feelings and letting them pass. I began my life as a Baptist and marriage has proudly made me a Methodist but even though I’ve been an undeserving Christian my whole life, I have always been profoundly interested in the teachings of all religions and their similarities to each other. Lately, in this era of terrorism, I’ve also focused on some particularly disturbing religious principles too but that’s for another blog.

In particular, this Buddhist concept speaks deeply to my soul because I’ve always sort of had this innate ability to shrug stressful things off my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that you have to accept Buddhism as a religion in order to benefit from some of its beliefs nor should Muslims be afraid to embrace commonly held Christian teachings. Accepting a positive life principle, no matter the source, is always a good thing and there are lots of commonalities found in many religions. So, let’s get back to this principle I was talking about.

When something stressful occurs or if we have unhealthy feelings like greed, lust or envy, we simply have to decide to acknowledge our feelings and then let them pass. If that sounds too easy to you, believe me, I know the feeling. But broken down to its most basic form, it’s simply saying “let it be”. Using mindfulness to overcome anxiety, no matter where the anxiety is centered. It’s a subtle yet powerful process when you think about it. When something negative comes, you simply acknowledge it and welcome it, recognizing that we are all born imperfect and we all experience the temptation of sin. God made us that way. Having bad thoughts is not what defines us, how we react to them is what defines us.

As human beings, we are all the same so there is no need to build barriers between us that don’t already exist. Whether it’s an issue of race, gender, sexual orientation or whatever, we can all find things that are common among us and we can all easily spot the sins or inadequacies of the other. We all have strengths and weaknesses, God was careful to create a diverse group of humanity, we just have to look harder to find out why. If we spend more time working on how to release negative energy rather than trying to fuel it, we’d all be better for it.

This release of negative energy has become a vital component of my own mental health. There is much more to this concept for the serious student of Buddhism, of course, but for me, a Christian trying to learn something from Buddhism, recognizing this one little aspect has been a game-changer because even though I already possessed the ability to decompress naturally, now I am more aware of what is happening on the inside which gives me more power over it. The act of renunciation is not about giving up the finer things of the world, but instead, recognizing that they all go away eventually and being completely content with that understanding.

But what do we gain by choosing to let envious feelings pass us? This is the best part. As a reward of letting go of envy, we receive the gifts of more time and increased focus to keep our eyes on our own prizes, stay in our own lanes, and not worry so much about what other people are doing and achieving. We no longer feel the urge or need to compare what is happening in our lives with what someone else is experiencing. We should measure ourselves on what we have thus far achieved versus our personal goals, not on what others achieve or of what they are doing.

Don’t fall into the trap of comparisons. Instead set goals for yourself which are realistic and complete them one by one. Your own success comes with sticking to your plan, being honest, working hard and then making sacrifices to achieve your goals. A man I respect dearly told me once, “People don’t mind you having things, they just don’t want you having more than them.” There’s a good bit of truth in that statement due in large part to this issue of envy. People who suffer from envy often have a skewed perception of how to achieve happiness. The true meaning of fortune is sometimes concealed behind a veil of other more tempting but mostly empty packages.

We each have our own unique paths, and that is exactly as it should be. Besides, keeping up with the Jones’ had become so 20th century that someone had to invent the Kardashians. Hey Kim, the 21st Century just called and we want our Jones’ back…just sayin. I mean, just watch two episodes of that show and focus on Sir Scott Disick, boyfriend and baby-daddy for Kourtney Kardashian, and you’ll see a poster child for depression, alcoholism and overall unhappiness, only with diamond Rolex watches and expensive sports cars. You can’t cure alcoholism with more alcohol; you can’t cure diabetes with more sugar; and you can’t cure envy with more stuff.

Benign envy, though, is perhaps a good thing so long as you focus your attention on what you want, then work to achieve or acquire it without wishing ill will on someone else in the process. We also shouldn’t isolate ourselves from our friends’, family and colleagues’ successes and happiness — quite the contrary! I find nothing more inspiring than watching my wife win a sales award or seeing my sister create beautiful paintings and sculptures, or being there while my son continues to grow in his maturity, confidence, and his career. In that sense, I’m not being envious of my sister’s talent in a negative way, just a little jealous – wishing I could do it too.

Happiness and success come in infinite quantities — there’s no reason to believe someone else is taking your share. If you’re fortunate enough to be the recipient of someone else’s hard work, be content. You didn’t earn it, you were just fortunate to benefit from it. Truly appreciating others’ success and happiness — but not coveting it — opens up your own path to personal and professional growth and fulfillment on your own terms, and not on anyone else’s. What could be better than that? Hmm, maybe Emily’s homemade cheesecake, but that’s about it.

As for the evil eye, well, since we are not all going to suddenly live in a world without envy, there are a few precautions you can take to combat any envious feelings coming your way. In pure Mediterranean style, you can sprinkle some salt around your house now and again, wear red, pepper your place with hanging pepperoncini – the symbol that protects against the Evil Eye, and also make the “le corna” (sign of the horns) with your hand (pinky finger and point finger sticking up, thumb holds the two middle fingers down) if and when you think someone is envying a bit too much.

Or you can always try my preferred method, attacking the dragon in its lair with a full frontal assault — though personally, I kind of think the sign of the horns is just too irresistible to ignore. Just in case.

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