Last week, I considered the phenomenon of Envy infecting our spiritual aspirations. Envy, as you might recall, is the one sin St. Thomas Aquinas considered entirely devoid of anything good. He defined this vice concisely as “sadness at another’s good.” Put that way, this vice seems to amount to an almost pure form of malevolence. As always, Aquinas makes the critical distinctions that save us from dangerous scruples:
Such sadness may happen in four ways. In one way, when you grieve at another’s good inasmuch as therein you have cause to fear for yourself, or for other good men. Such sadness is not envy, and may be without sin. Hence Gregory says: “It often happens, without loss of charity, that an enemy’s downfall delights us; and without reproach of envy, his elevation makes us sad: because by his fall we think that some are raised up, who deserve to be raised; and by his advancement we fear that many may be unjustly oppressed.”
So it’s okay to cackle savagely when candidates with evil views get crushed in elections, and leaders with wholesome programs fully compatible with our Faith take power. Not that this ever happens, but it’s nice to know the theory, just in case hockey catches on in hell.
In another way we may be saddened at another’s good, not because he has the good, but because the good that he has is wanting to us; and this is properly emulation. If this emulation is about the goods of virtue, it is praiseworthy, according to the text: “Be emulous of the better gifts.” But if it is about temporal goods, it may or may not be sinful.
So when your best friend drops way more pounds through his exercise program than you do by watching The Biggest Loser, your “sadness” might be good, bad, or indifferent — depending on for what (or for whom) you wish you could lose the weight.
On the next point, Aquinas for once parts company with Aristotle:
In a third way a man is saddened at another’s good, inasmuch as the person to whom the good comes is unworthy of it. [Such sadness concerns] riches and such-like gifts, as may accrue both to worthy and unworthy. This sadness, according to the Philosopher, is called righteous indignation, and is a point of virtue.
Sounds logical, doesn’t it? So do we have permission to resent the comfy lifestyles of worldly, wealthy neighbors? Alas, not so fast, insists Aquinas, who rebukes
those who have not an eye for eternal goods. But according to the teaching of faith, the increase of temporal goods in unworthy hands is directed by the just ordinance of God either to the correction of the enjoyers of them or to their condemnation; and such goods are as nothing in comparison with the good things to come, that are reserved for the good. And therefore such sadness as this is forbidden in Holy Scripture, according to the text: “Be not emulous of evil-doers, nor envy them that work iniquity.”
But it’s the final, fourth brand of “sadness” that St. Thomas condemns as the pathogen Envy:
In a fourth way a man may be sad at the goods of another inasmuch as that other surpasses him in good things; and this is properly envy, and is always evil, because it is grief over that which is matter of rejoicing, namely, our neighbour’s good.
So, while other vices amount to exaggerations or distortions of wholesome appetites — for marital bliss, glory, or justice — pure Envy craves evil for its own sake.
Thus the contrast between an Envious and a Magnanimous soul could hardly be starker if it were painted on the face of the moon. That’s not a bad way to visualize the issue at hand: Which way is your face turned — toward the sun or the sterile expanse of space? Envy is the dark side of the moon, and the more we’re facing the light, the brighter we ourselves appear. Take the following quiz to see if you’re a full moon like Edmund Campion, or a tiny crescent, like the emblem of a major world religion that shall here go nameless.
So here’s this week’s Trademark-Busting Cosmo-Style Quiz™, which should tell you where you come down on the spectrum from Schadenfreudian to simp.
Here’s your hypothetical: At your job, you have a colleague — let’s call him Mr. Wonderful — whose talents and task are starkly different from your own. You’re not direct competitors (which would muddle things), except in the vaguest way, so he’s no threat to your job. You’re plugging away just fine in your position, and from time to time your work gets the praise it deserves. It’s the same with him, and has been for years.
Then something happens. A project he’s working on becomes enormously successful, seemingly through happenstance. Suddenly, Mr. Wonderful’s work is attracting all kinds of internal attention and bringing in significant new business. He starts disappearing for long lunches at chi-chi restaurants with your boss and is given a nice private office — which you pass each day en route to your cubicle. Your cube, which used to feel like a comfy den where you worked contentedly, now seems to close around you like one of the veal-pens in the movie Office Space, and you start to feel strangely possessive about that red Swingline stapler on your desk.
Mr. Wonderful is still perfectly friendly to you, but now in what seems a slightly swaggering way that makes you suspect he’s trying to be Magnanimous about his success. And you really, really hate that. You feel like he’s tossing you bits of goodwill that you’re expected to catch in your mouth like dog treats, then wag your tail. And that’s exactly what you do.
In the course of things — maybe you were doing opposition research on the guy, just admit it — you turn up some embarrassing secret about his past. Nothing creepy or criminal, but an incident or character trait that would take some of the gilding off Mr. Wonderful’s halo, and slow down his canonization. Let’s say you accidentally found a bottle of his schizophrenia medication. What do you do with this information?
a) First of all, you treat yourself to a dinner worthy of Francois Mitterrand, which you eat alone with a notepad, making a list of which executives at the firm would find this information most unsettling. Next, you isolate the two or three biggest gossips in the company — the same people who gave you all the details on the boss’s ugly divorce and gorgeous trophy wife, including the cost of her cosmetic surgery. You decide which of these “friends” to “confide” in.
Then you take him to this very same restaurant, ply him with steaks and mojitos, and in a soft, compassionate voice tell him how much you admire Mr. Wonderful for his courage and willingness to heal. The whole time you act as if you thought this blabbermouth from the mail room already knew Mr. Wonderful’s secret. When he starts to literally paw at you for more details, you dispense them distractedly, as if they were already common knowledge. When you “discover” he hadn’t a clue, you pretend that you’re embarrassed. You swear him to secrecy and apologize profusely. You do your best to blush, and you refuse to eat dessert. You’ve lost your appetite. You let him box up your soufflé and take it home. He scarfs it down in the cab.
b) You take a secret delight in learning this fact about Mr. Wonderful, but immediately suppress it. Aware of the dark and deadly source of the satisfaction you’re taking in this knowledge, you decide never to mention it, and you congratulate yourself on acting so magnanimously in this case. Still, it’s a fact worth knowing, something you might someday be forced to use — but only in self-defense, of course. Should this fellow ever turn his growing power against you and treat you unjustly, it might in fact become important for folks to know all the facts about his mental stability.
But the likelihood of that seems small. In fact, at the rate he’s moving up, he’ll probably soon cease to notice you. Then you’ll be safe, and you won’t need to use this Fact. So you tuck it away in a little velvet jewelry box and try not to think about it too much. After a quick examination of conscience, you can’t find any sin here. You can see the red light on God’s control panel cease to flash, and His hand recede from the celestial “Smite!” button. You’re in the clear. Exhausted, you go home and microwave a burrito in your underwear.
c) You feel the same sick thrill of delight that anyone would, but it nauseates you. Even if Mr. Wonderful were in fact persecuting you — which he isn’t, he doesn’t bother — you know that employing tactics like these would be beneath you. They ought to be beneath anyone. No job is worth slithering into the sewer like this, you decide. In fact, you promise yourself that you’ll quit before you let this knowledge influence your thoughts or behavior in any way. Then you pretend that the news is something you accidentally overheard someone saying in Confession — which it’s a mortal sin to reveal. You make a special effort to appreciate Mr. Wonderful’s contribution to the company — without sucking up to him. That’s also beneath you. You cook your own dang spaghetti for a change.
d) The news delights you in a different way. Instead of seeing this as a weapon you might use against your rival — whether or not you deign to — you seize upon it as a “humanizing” flaw, something that makes Mr. Wonderful no longer threatening, but sympathetic. Just another struggling, broken, lonely soul. The kind of person who needs a friend, whose suffering has deepened him beyond the ordinary run of unreflective, bourgeois functionaries among whom you’re forced to work. He’s kind of interesting now, a little Bohemian, maybe a frustrated artist. You start to cultivate his company, approaching him with a much more solemn air, as if you’d met for the first time at AA. You volunteer to run menial errands for him and take him to the healthiest vegan bistro in town — where you feel free to unload on him your own secrets and fears. He’s no threat to you, after all. I mean, with his problems . . .
If you picked:
a) You’re a real piece of work. You should probably be working in Hollywood, where Lillian Hellman thrived. A long and prosperous future awaits you there, and an interesting eternity. If this scenario sounds even remotely plausible to you, it’s time to shift your gaze away from Mr. Wonderful and yourself to something more interesting: Why not try the Creator of the universe — Who, it is important to remember, maintains you from moment to moment in existence by conscious choice. He could, if He stopped thinking of you for a moment, let you drop like a match in a urinal.
The thought’s kind of bracing, isn’t it? He could drop Mr. Wonderful in there, too — along with the whole staff of the company and the waiters over at Café Pretentious, where you’ve made yourself a nuisance sending back the bottled water. So why not focus on the One who has really got the power and try winning favor with Him? It seems He has, for the moment, given Mr. Wonderful some temporal success, which He doesn’t trust you with. Your colleague will be held accountable for his excellence someday, as you’ll be for your relative mediocrity. Use it as best you can, in the time you have left, to placate the only Boss that really can “burn” you.
b) You’re a very careful person. No sense in taking chances in life, now, is there? You were given a set of talents, and saw there was no sense in squandering them on some job you never dreamed at age 20 you might be doing at 40. You put in your hours, of course, and fulfill every jot and tittle of your job description, but the rest of your time is your own. Not that you use it much, but at least it’s safe. You can see the spot where you buried it, back behind the house. Every few weeks you poke it with a spade, just to be sure.
Can I offer a suggestion? Just for a change of pace, why not try looking at the next task that comes before you as if it were the last thing you’d get to do on earth? As if your whole human worth would be judged by the excellence or flatulence you attained? Try this once, and see how it feels. Hold the results in your hand, as if you’d carved them out of ivory until your fingers bled. An interesting sensation, isn’t it? The whole time you were doing it, you know who you forgot about? Mr. Wonderful. And yourself.
c) You’ve got the right response, looking for “glory” not in attaboys from colleagues but in the proper ordering of your soul. You probably work very well at your job, despite all the distractions. Think of the glamour Mr. Wonderful’s enjoying as a little consolation God sent him, perhaps as recompense for his past suffering, and remember it might be fleeting. You have no excuse to ruin his fun — and no reason to, come to think of it. His happiness doesn’t detract from yours one bit. Nor would it really make you happier if he failed. When you have your own glory days down the road, remember to treat them ironically, at once enjoying them and shrugging them off. All is vanity. Enjoy it while it lasts.
d) Your future lies not in business or entertainment but in politics, perhaps as an activist on behalf of “non-profits” that garner handsome government contracts, or get money from the basket through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. You’ve already got a homemade Catholic B.S. Generator fully operational in your shed, and you dish out open-handedly what it emits. In fact, you’ve put the “puss” in pusillanimous.
But think about this: Your weakness, Mr. Wonderful’s psychiatric issues, the wounds and scars and anguish you find so endlessly interesting — they’re really kind of dull. They’re evils — natural evils resulting from the Fall, but in themselves they’re like flies in the Jell-O mold some nudnik brought to a neighbor’s wake. Suffering is only of value to God when it’s willingly offered in union with Christ’s on the cross. Otherwise it’s just a miserable waste. Artists and writers who’ve actually suffered from alcoholism or depression would tell you that their afflictions never helped their craft, made them deeper or stronger or wiser. Mr. Wonderful would tell you that, too, if you intruded on his confidence. Unless he simply punched you in the face.