Envy: it’s the bone-rotter. The joy-corroder. Buzzkill. I feel it pervade as I look at photos of impeccably adorned, whitewashed Pottery Barnesque mantles, slapdash art with a gazillion “likes,” Instagram accounts of people who seem to have a bottomless financial resource which allows them to travel constantly. And finally the last straw – a photo of my friend with none other than Bruce Springsteen (OK, I am very happy for her … but still jealous).
And the envy festers and grows and I feed it with thoughts like: How do they have time to funnel their dish soap from unsightly plastic containers into attractive antique carafes, when I find simply keeping the floor trash-free every day (not stuff-free, mind you, just trash-free) to be a nearly all-consuming exercise?
As I roll up and store away in the closet yet another drawing I’ve spent hours and hours on, I ask why I seem destined to languish in artistic obscurity while popularity comes so readily to others. And why can’t I have a trust fund and/or an anonymous benefactor who funds a glamorously nomadic lifestyle for my family?
Then the questions turn into accusations and become more malevolent: Hardly anyone likes your art because it’s just not that good. You should give up. It’s pointless. Your house will always be a disaster. Everyone else has figured out some essential key to life that you’ll just never have. YOU will always be a disaster.
The other day I laughed out loud at a phrase I read in a new article, “Click Farms.” We are so overcome with a pathological thirst for “likes” and affirmation of our online images that there is an industry devoted to generating fake ones. Quantity trumps quality, trumps authenticity at all, apparently, and somewhere there is a farm with rows of green, tender, dew-kissed “likes,” nearly ripe for indiscriminate dispersal.
I don’t like owning up to this envious part of myself. It feels ugly. And yet, it’s there. I shame myself for even wanting “likes,” for craving recognition. “God is pleased,” my husband says when I finish a drawing. “Who cares if anyone else is?” I know he’s right. And yet, an unease festers in the cellar of my heart, an unease that greedily demands more. Because envy, if we let it consume us, is an insatiable monster. There is nothing – no amount of accolades, recognition, lavish parades mounted in your honor – that can subdue the beast. But I believe there is a pure and good desire buried somewhere in the corroded heart of envy.
What is that bud of pure desire that our brokenness corrupts? Dallas Willard says because we are made in the image of God, we care about our creations. If we make a sandwich, give it to someone and they drop it to the floor and stomp on it, he says, we care. God created us to relish his creation with him – so we naturally want someone to appreciate and relish our creations with us. It’s when we turn our eyes from this to the creative work of others and begin comparing and ranking and judging. Instead of rejoicing at the kaleidoscopic bouquet of talents in all its endless, beautiful variety, a desire for mutual delight becomes a hunger for “better than” and “more than.”
And how readily we forget that the joy is mostly in the creation. My son, Israel, is a relentless maker. The recycling bin is never safe – he is constantly salvaging and reusing things I’d prefer not to be strewn everywhere (see what I mean about the trash-free thing?!) But the creative spirit is irrepressible in him, and he gets so excited about what he is preparing to make. One evening a few weeks ago, after a couple hours of furious work, he marched in our bedroom with a multi-level structure he made out of cardboard and tape. “It’s a zoo!” he exclaimed.
“Ooh,” I intoned. “Tell me about it!”
And he proceeded to explain where each animal went and how the whole thing functioned and the different habitats he created. There was pure joy in his eyes and I delighted in his creation.
And I’ve been thinking: What if our posture toward the beautifully arranged homes or fabulously inventive ideas we see on social media could be aspirational or deeply appreciative instead of shame-inducing? What if we could marvel at the talent of others instead of allowing them to illuminate our lack thereof in this or that arena? When we compare, we’re only hurting ourselves and inhibiting ourselves from flourishing. It’s poisonous. But when we take joy in the creating while cultivating our gifts and delighting – truly delighting with laughter, tears, awe and wonder – in the gifts of others, we find life.
Ashley Lande is mama to Israel (6) and Arrow (4), as well as one big dog, one little dog and a small flock of chickens. She feels most safe in a library and is an astoundingly good dancer. Her artwork is at ashleylande.com.