Once upon a time, lust was considered a taboo. The elephant in the room these days, however, is the green-eyed envy. Yet it is no less visceral, complex and powerful than our biological instincts for intimacy.
I would define envy as this:
‘taking another’s life personally.’
This means taking the [insert object(s) of envy here] of another person as an indicator of your own self worth. Ultimately, envy is an emotion. Like all emotions, it is borne out of the depths of the body and psyche as a signal to the individual. Thus, our engagement with it determines it’s positive or negative conclusion (i.e. whether the envy will be malignant or benign).
My own experience of envy led me to dig at its roots. I sought to learn what it had been trying to tell me.
‘And it may be that you dislike a thing that is good for you…’
Much of my own envy, had to do with perfectionism, an insatiable desire for all that is ‘good’. It is natural when you hold unrealistic expectations for yourself, to concurrently hold unrealistic expectations for others. I am not talking about the ‘realistic’ which is the birthplace of mediocrity. Rather, I mean an orientation of aspiration that is not authentic, and thus incompatible with your very being. These expectations are often imposed from the outside into us through societal and cultural conditioning. (For example, the idea of intelligence being solely academic, or beauty equalling some type of symmetry, or spirituality manifesting as an externally identifiable stereotype etc.)
Trying to synthesize these disparate threads of nebulous ideas and fantasies into my own existence was a recipe for disaster. Swathes of ungrateful insecurity follow idealization, drowning inner clarity with the fog of anxiety and desperation. The object of envy then becomes an idol, onto which you can project your spiritual and worldly aspirations.
Assuming that somebody else has already achieved everything we want or aspire to is a distraction from our own responsibilities in being alive. We somehow question whether there is really anything left for us to pursue, as if the abundance of the Universe is limited. This can make us despairing, demotivated and complacent; and it did for me, for a long time. Really, it is a form of intellectual laziness, a cop-out if you will.
No body and no thing external to ourselves can embody our own potential.
Ultimately, we don’t hold on to negative patterns of behaviour unless they serve us in some way. It took me a while to realize how my envy was actually a cover for a fear of making any commitments or decisions that could turn out to have disastrous consequences. The idealized object of envy however, reduced the need to think for myself.
When we envy or idealize, we neglect our inner knowing of the True equality of all beings in their essence. It allows us to play small, despite the fact that we were created to make manifest the Glory of God. We dismiss the miraculous nature of our own existence by failing to be present within our own lives, obsessing over the lives of others, living vicariously through them.
To an extent, it is understandable. We live in a competitive world, driven by a cancerous form of social Darwinism; exacerbated now by the materialistic use of social media to measure our worth. Yet, simultaneously, we are obsessed with the race to keep up appearances, to appear polite, correct, altruistic, moral and decent.This incongruence and division of our Selves leads to the pain of duplicity. Kant outlined the complexity of envy in a world which is interconnected by its very nature:
‘Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. [It is] a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others.’
Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals
‘But, what about if someone is actually better than you in some form you value?’ I often asked myself. Well, I decided I would learn what I could from them because clearly they were in my life for a reason. And if this question applies to you too, please remember, you are not them. We cannot steal another person’s destiny. It does not belong to us. And neither can any person imitate another’s path in an effort to reap the fruits of the seeds that they have sown or inherited. This failure to distinguish our own existence from that of others is an illness. Whilst we are all connected, we are not all the same. Equality is not uniformity. These are very sophisticated tricks of the Ego to keep us from fulfilling our purpose.
Envy is probably the starkest indication that there are some issues of humility within us that need to be addressed. In the Qur’an, Satan used his limited intellect as creation, to concoct a superficial hierarchy between himself and Adam (AS). Based on his limited perception, he felt a certain entitlement to the blessings of Adam (AS) and superiority over him. However, the appearance of levels and distinctions between individuals, may be Allah’s ultimate test for us. Nothing hurts us as much as losing, being beat or humiliated. In such instances, we are presented with the choice to cling to our ego or freedom. We can identify with the roles society has placed upon us, or we can be free and open to the Mystery of existence.
However, we cannot forget that we are all equal in essence. Identification with illusory happenings in the material world veil us from the instantly available Reality of the Divine, accessible in each moment, to everyone. Equally.
Despite our interconnected nature and all the comparisons and consequences this entails, we will all die alone. We will face Allah alone. We can’t let the noise of people’s expressions drown out the individual free agency of our own soul. This is because ultimately, it is for that gift, which we will be held to account.
‘No burdened soul will bear the burden of another: if a heavily laden soul should cry for help, none of its load will be carried, not even by a close relative.’
The above account is drawn from my own experiences with envy, and the subsequent realisations that freed me from its grips. In many ways freedom from envy, or comparison, meant freedom from what Lupita Nyong’o so eloquently called the ‘seduction of inadequacy’. Envy is a messy business. It can lead you to question everything you ever thought about yourself. I would hope though that it will not lead to any more unnecessary self-loathing for you, if you are suffering from it and experiencing shame. It is a human emotion, sent to us from the depths of our soul as a signpost to re-calibrate us back on to our Straight Path. Heed the call, examine all the facets of its ugliness, a potential tool for enlightenment. Welcome the darkness as an inevitable part of yourself, and light it up with Awareness.
‘The day you stop racing, is the day you win the race.’ – Bob Marley