Saturday, February 5, 2011

"The Green-Eyed Monster..."

Jealousy.  Covetousness.  Envy.  These three words similar in meaning are actually not the same.  We use many expressions to indicate that we desire what someone else has, but there are levels to this concept.  Some people, notably Shakespeare fans, would refer to these emotions as "the green-eyed monster".  That such passion would drive us to behave in a beastly fashion, thus becoming the "monster" that is green.  This line originates with Shakespeare, as many of our expressions do, and is said in two plays:  Othello and  The Merchant of Venice.

In Othello the line reads:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

In The Merchant of Venice the line reads:

How all the other passions fleet to air,
as doubtful thoughts and rash embraced despair
and shuddering fear and green-eyed jealousy!"

I'm partial to its use in Othello.

Another expression often stated with this desire is to be "green with envy".  In the days of yore, the Hebrew word for envy, qinah, referred to the burning color in the face produced by a deep emotion. The Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a yellowish-green pallor to the victim’s complexion. In the seventh century B.C., the poetess Sappho used the word “green” to describe the face of a stricken lover. After that, the word was used freely by other poets to denote jealousy or envy; and now used by all.

But what is the difference between these three little words that strike hate within humans and drive out all sensible reason?  I'm glad you asked.

Jealousy - The fear of losing something that you feel already belongs to you.

This word may be the one used incorrectly the most often.  Whenever we decide that people want what we have, we assume they are jealous.  This is not the case.  They would have to already possess what we have as their own and fear losing it.  Jealousy usually stems from romantic love, mammas not wanting to let go of their little boys when they get married (I will be this mother I'm sure), or being beaten out of a position we've already obtained such as the top athlete at the school, the most popular girl, or the best dancer.  When we are afraid we might lose our most precious possession, be it a person or a talent, we are jealous only because we owned it first. I have been jealous.  Mostly with regards to my husband because I KNOW what a great thing I've got, and so does everyone else from the smile on my face most of the time.  He, on the other hand, is blissfully unaware of other women's attraction to him.  Endearing.  He has never given me a reason to be jealous, never.  But, there are moments I find myself allowing the emotion to read its ugly monstrous head and I have to beat it back down into submission.

Covetousness - The desire of that which is not yours and currently unattainable as it belongs to someone else or lies outside your ability to get.

This word is more aligned with greed - one of the seven deadly sins.  We just want.  We want it, we can't have it because someone else does, but that does not stop us from wanting it - whatever it is.  However, covetousness (as seen by the church) is applied to a very excessive or rapacious desire regarding the pursuit of wealth, status, or power. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that covetousness was "a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." In Dante's Purgatory, the penitents were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly wants.   We all covet.  We all want what we can't have.  We are often ashamed of our deepest desires, but they are there.  I would be lying if I said I'd never coveted anything in my life, I have - you have.  Say a prayer.

Envy - The desire of that which is not yours and the begrudging of the person who actually possesses it.

Ah!  Now we're getting to what really floats amongst our society all the time.  Envy.  Wanting what isn't yours and actually taking it out on the person because of this.  Asinine.  Envy is the most dangerous emotion of the three.  This is when we see the beautiful, skinny, happy girl go bouncing by us in the mall and we automatically hate her.  We do not fear losing anything to her - it is not jealousy.  We could have what she has without barriers (diet and exercise) -  it is not covetousness.  But all the same, we hate her.  We begrudge her the happy life she has because for whatever reason, we've decided it's just not fair that she got "all that" and we didn't.  Asinine.  Envy is when you call your co-worker nasty names and gossip like a school-girl behind his or her back actually attempting to sabotage their career simply because you've decided to begrudge them any success or growth; they've never done anything to you.  Asinine.  Envy is more than simply not liking someone and stating this - we aren't all going to get along.  Envy is more - it's another level of loathing.  Envy is all about the person feeling the emotion, it does next to nothing towards the person you've decided to hate.

I remember envy from middle school and high school days.  People that hated me (and others) and for the life of me I couldn't figure out how I'd wronged them.  What had I taken?  Just what did I do to make you so damn mad at me?  Nothing, unless you count being alive and frankly, that's not my fault - be mad at my parents.  I listened to girls talk about other girls (let's face it, girls are the absolute worst when it comes to envy and I'm not innocent) in ways that would seem as if they'd been best friends and a "deal-breaker" betrayal had happened.  However, when faced with the question of "Wow!  What did she do to you?"  The answer is flat, "Nothing exactly, she just thinks she's all that."  Does she?  Have you asked her?  I'm going to go out on a limb here and assure you, she does not.

After graduating from the teenage masses, I thought envy was an emotion I would no longer have to deal with.  I was wrong.  I'll leave it at that.  I can say that I, as an adult, have never begrudged or hated someone simply because they had something I wanted.  If I want it that bad, I figure out how to obtain it of my own accord.  If it's not in God's plan for me to have, then I learn to let it go.

But I've watched envy slither its way through friendships, marriages, and professions.  When you envy, not only are you miserable and negative all the time, but you actually want to injure another human because you believe they are the source of the problem.  Wrong.  You are the source of your problem, and only you.  Envy leads to bitterness, hate, rage - avoid it at all costs.

I don't know that envy will ever leave our society.  I find that as long as people don't really want to work that hard to be successful, it will always be easier to blame someone else, to hate someone else.  It seems to me that if people put the same amount of energy into accomplishing their goals and working for the things they want as they put into hating other people, being envious of other people, the outcome would be better for all.

There is nothing wrong with seeing something another person has and thinking: I really like their house, her hair-cut is really cute, he's a great pilot, she's great at her job, or I'd love to have that car; but don't hate them for it.  Hating them only hurts you.

I leave you with a few profound statements about envy in hopes that you may remove it from your life.

Envy is the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own.  ~Harold Coffin

The envious die not once, but as oft as the envied win applause.  ~Baltasar Gracian

If malice or envy were tangible and had a shape, it would be the shape of a boomerang.  ~Charley Reese

Envy is the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it.  ~Honore de Balzac

Whoever envies another confesses his superiority.  ~Samuel Johnson, The Rambler

And my favorite (because I do love Emerson):

Envy is ignorance.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. "When you envy, not only are you miserable and negative all the time, but you actually want to injure another human because you believe they are the source of the problem. Wrong. You are the source of your problem, and only you. "

    this is one of the truest statements i've ever heard. i always try not to be jealous, or envy anyone for anything they have that i lack. and i didnt notice until now that i did let it affect my (partner) relationship at times. what about being stubborn because you don't want to be wrong? does this tie into envy or jealousy?

  2. Hmm - that's a good question. I, too, struggle with being stubborn, but more so with decisions and endeavors than people. I don't know that anyone wants to be wrong, but I think with time and age, the acceptance of being wrong softens. I'm not a fan, don't misunderstand me, but I know it's going to happen.

    I do believe that being jealous or envious can cause someone to become stubborn or indignant about a person or situation. But the jealousy or envy is the catalyst, the stubborn behavior is the result.