A friend of Dorothy Day’s told her that her children had called Peter Maurin “ragged and unkempt.” They were sure “that he never bathed, and he seemed to sleep in his clothes.” Day asked him why he didn’t try to look better; he told her, “So as not to excite envy.”
Maurin, for those who don’t know, was Day’s friend and mentor, and the mind behind the Catholic Worker movement. He’s also quite possibly a saint. He lived a very simple life, with no place to lay his head.
It’s a question how much envy Maurin might have raised were he better dressed, given what “better dressed” would have meant to him. But he lived and worked among the very poor; wearing a nice clean suit, even if it was a cheap one, might have made people he cared for envious.
The story speaks of a certain detachment from worldly things – a cluelessness about himself and the world, which I think is rather sweet. Whether he was right about his clothes possibly encouraging others to envy him, he did not dress as he could legitimately have done, and he dressed the way he did to help others avoid a very serious sin.
Envy is one of the seven “capital,” or deadly, sins – the capital crimes of the moral life. Maurin said that envy came from greed and “makes a man consider the advantages of another as losses to himself.” The envious person feels that somehow someone else’s blessings harm him, that he’s been robbed of what’s rightly his.
The Protestant apologist Dorothy L. Sayers, in a wonderful essay titled “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” calls envy “the great leveler.”
“If it cannot level things up, it will level them down,” she writes. “At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church drives the point home (No. 413) with a quote from the Book of Wisdom (2:24): “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” Which is to say, you really don’t want to do this.
I’ve wondered about this principle, that we should live so as not to excite envy. Almost all of us face the problem when we share good news on social media.
Every time you share good news about your spouse, or your children, or your work, or something you did, you risk exciting envy among those who don’t have what you have. We can’t avoid exciting envy without shutting up entirely, because someone will always envy whatever blessing we have, but shutting up entirely means not sharing news we should share with our friends.
I think, for example, of an older man taking care of a very sick spouse. He’d always expected that at the end of his career, when the kids were all out of the house, when finally they had a little extra money, he’d be out and about with his wife enjoying things they hadn’t been able to enjoy together before.
Now they can’t, and won’t ever. He sees all the posts on Facebook of people his age or much older having the time of their lives. He tries not to feel envy, at least of the leveling-up kind, but it’s hard not to envy people with healthy spouses who can enjoy life in a way he can’t.
The social media system itself encourages envy and our unthinking use of it encourages envy even more. But what to do? I have four suggestions of practical ways to do this.
First, don’t try to avoid the problem by making a point of how lucky you are and how unworthy you are. In other words, don’t humble brag. It’s not humble. It’s annoying. As Jesus might have said, let your brag be a brag and your silence, silence. If the news is news you feel (after thinking about it) you should share, just share it.
Second, without saying things you shouldn’t share in public, make clear that you have your own struggles, disappointments, and failures.
Third, make a smaller grouping among your Facebook friends for real friends, for friends who want to hear good things about your life and won’t feel envious, even if that aspect of their own lives pains them.
Fourth, take a cue from Romans 12:15, and rejoice when others rejoice and weep when they weep. Care for others’ lives in a way that subverts the temptation to envy them.
David Mills is columnist for OSV News. He writes from Pennsylvania.
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