A monthly feature about spiritualityThe second deadly sin is envy, and the church has nicknamed it "the green-eyed monster." Envy is the pain we feel when we perceive another individual possessing some object, quality or status we do not possess. More than simple jealously or passive resentment, true envy consumes us. If we can't have it, we don't want anyone else to have it either. Envy has a heart of darkness.
It begins in childhood, of course, when we are constantly being compared to others and, by adulthood, envy has a face that Thomas Fuller called the "squint-eyed fool." Words like "insidious," "gnawing" and "vampire-like" are used to describe this complex human reaction to the good fortune of others. Its cousins are spite and sour grapes. There is, however, a lively virtue embedded in this deadly sin. It's called emulation. It grows out of the same soil, but blooms in a different, more positive fashion. When we encounter someone who is possessed of great talent, wisdom or ability we do not always wish to bring them down. Sometimes we wish to be more like them! Emulation is the effort or desire to equal or excel others.
This desire is what drives the student to learn from the teacher, the understudy to become the lead, the apprentice to equal or excel the master. Excellence is its own reward, and our response to beauty and truth need not be envy. It can be a source of inspiration.
When I listen to Mozart's music, Maya Angelou's voice, or Bishop Tutu's prayers, I don't feel the slightest tinge of envy. I am just amazed. Then I wonder why I didn't stay with my music lessons longer or read more poetry. As to Desmond Tutu, I can't help but wonder, every time he smiles, why he isn't crying instead. How can he talk about forgiveness when he has witnessed so much that is unforgivable?
One can argue that the ministry of Jesus was more about emulation than about information. It was "commissional." He didn't tell people what to believe, but showed them what to do and then asked them to "go and do likewise." In essence, God's Emulator wanted emulative disciples more than erudite ones. He wanted followers, not fans.
In a world that is full of celebrities but starved for heroes, the difference between envy and emulation becomes more than just a philosophical footnote. At stake is how each generation finds its role models and avoids being orphaned from beauty and truth. Just remember, everyone is looked up to by someone. So if you and I aren't worthy of emulation, then what are we good for? Anyone can teach the lesson, but some people are the lesson.
The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma Cityand is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at HCIbooks.com.