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If you've been following me so far, it will not surprise you that I see the title of this chapter as something much more complex than it appears on the surface. The core question is, of course, who’s doing what to whom. The simple formulation "I envy him" has a seductive symmetry about it. But when it’s deconstructed and the pieces examined carefully, things become far from simple.
Let's start with that short and most difficult word. What’s meant by the word “I”?
If I say that I poked my finger into my eye which disturbed my mind, then what are we to make of this “I”?
Earlier I have described the corrosive implications of what’s generally referred to as the "self". Those observations are relevant here. If the “I” referred to is that very “self”, then it’s a virtual representation created by you. In other words, it’s a mask that you present to the world in lieu of your authentic presence. But such a proposition turns the world on its end. It means that the reflection in the mirror is looking out at the reality. It means that the unreal is simulating the real. And what should we make of that?
In writing the last paragraph, I am conscious of the difficulties that the English language presents in describing certain ideas. A casual reading might lead you to believe that I'm suggesting that there’s such a thing as a “self” which is authentic. That’s not the case. There’s no such thing as an “authentic self”. Certainly, the “self” is an authentic virtual creation. There’s little doubt that, for most people, it exists. But its authenticity is the authenticity of a mask or a disguise.
Perhaps the last paragraph has given you a hint of where I'm headed. What’s the fountainhead of the envy? Is it the person or the avatar? It's not a terribly long journey to the proposition that an avatar can be reflexively envious even though its creator would vehemently deny such a thing. The existence of this virtual representation often rises out of a sense of shame and inadequacy. You offer the world a mask as a representation of who you are because you suspect that, should they see the real person, they would be either offended or disappointed. Such a patrimony virtually guarantees reflexive envy both on the part of the person and their virtual representation. So, if you’ve manufactured a virtual representation of yourself and put it forward to the world as your authentic presence, it's entirely possible that that virtual representation will contain the characteristic of reflexive envy.
Having stirred that part of the pot, let's turn to the other end of the sentence. What is it that’s referred to as "him"? Of course, we have the same problem at this end. Is the “him” the person or the person’s avatar? In other words, do you envy their virtual representation; their mask? Or do you know them well enough to envy the person that they actually are? It’s rarely easy to discern. Or do you know them well enough but still envy their mask? A well-made mask is, in some sense, a work of art after all.
By now you are probably seeing how complicated a proposition can be when a whole crowd of ‘realities’ are involved. There’s, of course, a way of simplifying such situations. Following a core principle of Zen Buddhism, the journey to self-knowledge requires the complete abandonment of the very concept of “self”. Such a transformational journey eliminates one, and possibly two, of those involved. If the “self” which you have created is removed - if the mask is eliminated - then the question of envy, to the extent that it persists, resides in the person you are in the present moment you are living through. Further, if you have disabused yourself of accepting another’s mask as a representation of who they are, you can sweep away a second presence. Now there’s only face-to-face and person-to-person.
Once we are at this point, we can begin to come to terms with the corrosive effect of envy. We can begin to see the impact of this bizarre form of self-torture and self-depreciation. We can also begin to identify the wellspring of envy.
Roses are red, violets are blue
I’m schizophrenic and so am I
Envy is a kind of civil war. The battlefield is almost completely internal. Certainly there are external manifestations which may make you look foolish and petty. But the biggest cost is the internal friction and wasted energy that results. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re envy is focused on your avatar, the avatar of another or another person as they genuinely are. The cost is the same. You are isolated from your experience of the life you might lead. Envy is a distraction that is terribly expensive. So let’s examine the cost.
Envy takes you away from who you are and from direct experience of who you are. It involves you in an adolescent game which takes place in a completely virtual reality. In the worst case, the avatar that you are envies the avatar that someone else has created. Nothing is real except the wasted opportunities for self-discovery. If it becomes a habit, this cost can accumulate over years and sometimes decades.
Wanting is not the same as having!
A second cost of envy is its focus on the unobtainable. This is particularly true if the envy is directed towards the avatar of another. Instead of taking a transformational journey to self-knowledge, you end up wanting something that you perceive as valuable as it is possessed by someone else. What’s particularly ironic about this arrangement is that generally, when what is envied is obtained, satisfaction does not follow. After all, how often have you wished for something only to find, once it is in hand, that it wasn’t what you expected.
But the real cost of envy is that it forces you to live in the virtual world – separated from the life you might live. Its effect is corrosive. Even though it is virtual, that does not mean that it doesn’t exist in present experience. It pollutes your experience of life and it colors the way others experience you as a person.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,