Envy is Not the Worst. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, it’s the Most Auspicious.
Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are fond of saying that envy is the worst of the seven deadly sins – because, unlike the others it’s no fun at all. The response – from Berkshire Hathaway faithful like is to bow our heads in agreement. Hopefully confident that we won’t sin in this way.
But then, when we feel envy – as I often do, we are more likely to dismiss it. That would be to miss it’s enormous benefits.
Emotions are a call to action. A guide to what is really going on. Sadness for example is a sign that that we need to seek comfort and shelter. Anger tells us that our boundaries have been violated. But it’s not enough to just act on our anger and lash out at the first person. That would be a reptilian response. Our modern world far too complex for that. It was Aristotle, the ancient philosopher who famously said:
“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.1 “
Like anger, envy is also a sign that things are not right. But it’s more complex than anger, and needs to be more carefully unpacked.
Here is a personal example. I recently have felt envious of former classmates of mine who are now in positions of prominence in public life. The feeling puzzles me because I have never sought out high political office. And my life is demonstrably better than theirs in so many ways.
But I’m still aware that the envy is calling me to do something. I’m just not sure what.
Sometimes, I day-dream that I’ve invited those former classmates for dinner and have given them a firsthand view of how much better my life is than theirs. Or sometimes I experience a rush of schadenfreude when one of them falls from grace. I’m glad that i have not indulged these low-road reactions to the emotion as they represent a knee-jerk, irrational and reptilian response.
But if, by contrast, I take a little time to listen to it, I think that the envy is telling me that, even though I’ve reaching a good place in my career, it’s far from over. There is so much more that I’m capable of and need to do. And it’s got something to do with holding public office and service to society. That might be the labelled the high-road. A more mindful response.
I’m still figuring it out. But here is the key: The quality of my response to the emotion of envy will ultimately have a huge influence on what I do with my life from here. And if I take the mindful high-road, my life will be bigger and more meaningful – than if I take the knee-jerk low-road.
And this is the reason why envy is the most auspicious of emotions. Who we are envious of contains important clues as to where our best future lies. And, if we use it right, it contains our destiny.
Perhaps Rumi said it best:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.