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July 5, 2009

It’s not easy being green Sin of envy can consume us and leave us lost

By Joe Paprocki


In the famous song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” Kermit the Frog, the lovable character from Sesame Street, laments the fact that, when you’re green, people pass you over because you blend in with so many other ordinary things. Kermit admits to feeling envious of the “flashy sparkles in the water or the stars in the sky” that attract so much attention.

Green is also the color associated with envy. We commonly use the phrase “green with envy” to describe the resentment we feel toward others who possess that which we ourselves lack. So, why is envy associated with the color green? In antiquity, it was believed that many illnesses were caused by an overproduction of bile that produced a yellowishgreenish tint to the skin.

The phrase “green around the gills” suggests that a person is feeling ill. Certain strong emotions were also attributed to this overproduction of bile. Thus, envy came to be seen as a sickness in a person’s character.

When it comes to envy, we can vouch for Kermit’s sentiments: It’s not easy being green. Nor is it any fun. Let’s face it, engaging in most sinful behaviors feels good. That’s why we have a hard time avoiding them. Engaging in acts of lust, gluttony and even anger can bring us a sense (albeit fleeting) of pleasure, enjoyment or satisfaction.

Envy, on the other hand, is void of any good feeling. We are not seduced by envy as much as we are consumed by it, as if being swallowed by a monster. This image was not lost on Shakespeare whose character Iago (in the play Othello) says, “O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy (envy); it is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Envy is indeed a monster that consumes us, making us uncomfortably aware of the emptiness we have within, of the hunger that we possess for we know not what. As a result, envy drives us to accumulate, to possess and to consume in order to fill the empty space.

Pain caused by fortune

Simply put, envy is a resentment of others based on the conclusion that they have what we do not possess. It is similar to jealousy, however, jealousy is the resentment we have toward someone that we perceive as a threat to that which we already possess (e.g. a jealous spouse fears losing his/her partner to another).

Aristotle described envy as “the pain caused by the good fortune of others.” On the flip side, we can say that envy is the pain caused by not recognizing our own good fortune.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche (an international organization which creates communities for people with developmental disabilities) said that “Envy comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.” It is indeed the symptom of an illness — a condition characterized by our inability to recognize our own good fortune.

So what does envy do to us that makes it a deadly sin? Because envy is rooted in a lack of recognition of our own giftedness, it is an obstacle to living as God intends us to live. God wants us to know that we are blessed.

It is no accident that the Mass ends with the priest extending God’s blessing upon us — a reminder that we are fortunate to be the apple of God’s eye. It is only when we forget this reality — when we somehow conclude that we are not worth much and need something more to fulfill or sustain us that we become susceptible to envy.

When envy — the green-eyed monster — consumes us, we become small-hearted and petty. We long for the advantages that others enjoy and despise them for enjoying advantages that we ourselves do not have. When consumed by envy, we do not seek to emulate others who do good but to outdo them. We become incapable of admiring others and instead resent them.

Giftedness is the cure

In many ways, we have already alluded in this article to the “cure” for envy: the recognition of our own giftedness. It is for this reason that spiritual directors have, for centuries, prescribed prayer of gratitude as the prescription of choice for many spiritual ills.

In his “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola says that we ought to “ask for interior knowledge of all the great good [we] have received, in order that, stirred to profound gratitude, [we] may become able to love and serve” (No. 233). Author Chris Lowney, in his book “Heroic Living,” takes this further and says, “Be grateful because gratitude is what energizes and motivates us to pursue great purpose.

An “attitude of gratitude” enables us to recognize the gifts we have been blessed with and, as a result, to show kindness to others, celebrating their good fortune, admiring their achievements and praying for their continued wellbeing.

Ultimately, the cure for envy can be found in the Eucharist, a word that means thanksgiving. As a eucharistic community, we are called to be a people of gratitude. It’s not easy or fun being green with envy. However, it is right to give God thanks and praise for the many blessings we enjoy.

This is the third installment in a series about the seven deadly sins. Paprocki, is a consultant for faith formation for Loyola Press and author of “A Well-Built Faith: A Catholic’s Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe.”