Friday, May 25, 2012

Is Gratitude the Opposite of Envy?

This week, Livie cried bitterly all the way home from a friend's house over the fact that the friend had more Star Wars toys than she did.

The most coveted object in little Cameron's collection was a storm trooper helmet and blaster. Livie was sporting both of them when I picked her up, in hilarious contrast to her fluffy pink and black dress that she had on under it.

This was her first experience of wanting something really, really badly that belonged to someone else. She sang a refrain common to all the Jealous on our homeward commute: 

"It's not fair. Why does he have it, and not me?"

I thought of so many wise, practical, spiritual and rational things to say to my small daughter in those long minutes in the car, but knowing that she wouldn't be able to hear any of them, I thought about myself instead. 

Specifically, my 22-year-old self, who once cried the whole drive home from San Francisco to Orange County (much longer than 15 minutes) because my dear friend was getting married and moving to the City on the Bay, while I, already married, was doomed to a life in suburban Orange County, where I had lived my whole life except college. (I had just been to my friend's bachelorete party in the city; so lack of sleep and excess of alcohol probably came into play here, but the emotions were still real.) 

 It wasn't fair. Why did she get the urban adventure we had both discussed and dreamed of, while I got to be living 15 minutes away from my parents and in-laws in the place I grew up?

Flash forward  12 years to today. For the next four weeks, I am co-teaching a class at my church on the book Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. It's a difficult and fantastic book about building healthy relationships with clear-cut property lines between ourselves and others. The subhead is "When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life." Well, who doesn't want to know how to do that?

One of the most surprising things I've learned as I prepare for this study is that envy is a boundary problem. "The Law of Envy," the authors say, "defines 'good' as 'what I do not possess,' and hates the good that it has. How many times have you heard someone subtly put down the accomplishments of others, somehow robbing them of the goodness they had attained...What is so destructive about this particular sin is that it guarantees that we will not get what we want and keeps us perpetually insatiable and dissatisfied."

Boundaries are about being responsible for one's own desires and getting those desires met. If I am perpetually jealous of someone, what I ought to do is determine where the lack of something in myself is, and work on filling that lack. 

I've often heard that gratitude is the opposite of jealousy, but I don't think that's a complex enough response. To simply take a Pollyanna brush and paint "glad and grateful" over every negative emotion I have is not honest, and moreover, it doesn't allow me to change anything. A more proactive approach to envy is to see how I ended up with the situation that I no longer like and figure out how to change it.

Let's break down the Star Wars example, shall we? Why does Cameron have so much more than Livie? Cam has been "into" Star Wars for years, as have his older brothers. So his family has made a choice to buy those toys over something else. Meanwhile, Livie has wanted Barbies, My Little Ponies, and doll clothes, and Star Wars is a new fixation. 

She could choose to be grateful for the toys she has; or she could decide to sell them at a garage sale and buy a Storm Trooper mask; or she could wait until her birthday and ask for one then; or she could decide that playing with it at Cameron's is almost as good as having it herself. It's not immediate gratification, but it is a proactive solution to envy. And once Livie calmed down, it actually made sense to her.

And then let's look at the apartment in San Francisco that I really wanted (and obviously still don't have). Twelve years ago, after the tearful drive, Hubby and I discussed why we were in Orange County in the first place: our good jobs and the lower cost of living (San Francisco remains one of the only places in the country more expensive than where we live). But as knowing this practical factor didn't dispel my sense that something was missing, we decided we would seriously consider moving, and made our next year's worth of vacations fact-finding missions about other places we might like to live. 

You know what we decided? We really like living in Orange County. We love the weather, the lifestyle, our jobs, our church, and our truly wonderful friendships. We could afford our house, and we didn't pay rent for a parking place. When we decided to have a baby, we really liked living so close to our parents and adult siblings. And moreover, we felt that God had given each of us a calling in our jobs and ministries. We were accomplishing good things. We had chosen a good life.

So many years ago, Jeff and I decided we would visit other places, including that same dear friend from college, who is now living in a beautiful suburb of San Francisco, and whose home is one of my favorite vacation destinations. Having my friend live there (and letting me visit!) is almost as good as living there myself. And guess where she is coming on vacation this summer? Orange County. 

On a small scale this week: one of my best friend's is moving to a new house, and I began to envy the opportunity she had to recreate her living space. I felt badly about it for about 24 hours, and then I decided to repaint my downstairs bathroom.  My envy was just a sign that I needed a little change; a can of paint is a pretty quick fix.

I am grateful for my life, not just because God commands me to be, but because I regularly track the way both God's will and my own choices got me here. My life isn't an accident, it isn't something handed to me by an unfair twist of fate. So I don't have to want someone else's life, or worse -- criticize or demean someone else's out of envy. I can make changes any time. Even move to San Francisco. Now that's something to be grateful for.

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