Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gratitude and Envy

The word “covet” appeared before me on the page of a book I was reading.  (I no longer remember the title or author of that book.)  As it entered my brain, I began to ponder its meaning.  256px-Panthera_tigris_-Franklin_Park_Zoo,_Massachusetts,_USA-8a_(2)The Bible states:  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17, NIV).  That’s the last command out of the well-recognized Ten Commandments.  I might tell you that I have been working my way through the Ten Commandments, but that would be both a lie and a lost cause.  In reality, I rarely think about them. 

As I considered this command, it didn’t sound difficult to follow.  Our cultural differences from the time it was written allow us to throw out the servants (although we could substitute employees or anyone who does work for us), the ox and donkey (or substitute anything associated with how we make our living.)  Once those are gone, we have only the house and the wife. I have no intention of coveting someone else’s wife (or husband) or their house. But what about the last part “. . . anything that belongs to your neighbor?”

I have never been considered either greedy or a shopper, nor am I someone who wants the finer things of life, so I had never considered myself a covetous person. No, I have never considered myself a coveter.  I have never wanted someone else’s things.  Yes,  I felt neglected when I visited other children at Christmas and saw the mounds of toys they had received.  I often wished my childhood had been different, better, like someone else’s childhood.  When I was 10 or 11 I saw some beautifully illustrated books that I did not have money to buy.  For years afterward, I fantasized that I had stolen the money to purchase them.  But all these things happened in childhood.  I am mature.  I do not violate the Ten Commandments.  Or do I?

As I considered what it meant to covet, my mind was immediately drawn to a problem that arose about 6 months ago.  My walking partner moved.  For a week or two, I enjoyed the solitude, but that was before I noticed two other people walking together, laughing, and talking, having a good time.  As I listened to them, I felt worse and worse about my own lonely situation.  I resented that they were happy in their own little world with no thought for me.  I wanted what they had so badly; I envied their relationship and coveted it.  I wanted a relationship like theirs.   

I digress with a quote on friendship from C.S. Lewis:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facts. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.” (The Four Loves)

Several years ago, I purchased a greeting card, a friendship card that I held on to for years, never able to send it.  The card described the perfect friendship as I’ve seen it portrayed in books and movies where two women share intimate details, laugh together, cry together, shop together, share makeup and clothing. . . things I could see those two walkers doing together.  I wanted a friendship like that, but after many years of trying to find the right person to receive the card, I threw it away.

My rational mind tells me I am not a morning person or an extrovert.  There is no way I could have carried on a conversation as the two women walkers did, or have the type of relationship which includes a lot of talk and laughter.  Indeed, my mind tells me that I will never have a greeting card friendship and if one presented itself to me I would not enjoy it. 

But, envy and covetousness are not rational.  Envy springs forth like a tiger clawing its way across its wounded victim, tearing and gouging and finally devouring the choicest parts.  Pain, pure and raw, pushed me, pulled me, dragged me into covetousness.  These emotions were strong enough to keep me from walking, an activity I enjoy.  I first skipped a day, then a week, then months.  

When I started walking again, I varied the path I had never before changed, now taking a circuitous route only to avoid those two companions and my own ugly emotions.   What is the limit of my covetousness? I wondered.  Would I wish them dead?  Could I like Raskolnikov in
Crime and Punishment

kill to make myself happy?  Or could I  spread ugly rumors to break the partnership?  What would I do?  How low would I stoop?  At first, avoidance was the only thing I could think of.  But my walks had became a furtive cat and mouse game where I changed direction and doubled back to avoid the two talkers.   

It was then that I began thinking about gratitude.  Gratitude is the opposite end of envy and covetousness, but anyone who says they can simply push the dark emotions out and declare the space filled with gratitude is a liar. 

Gratitude grows gently and slowly, requiring constant and conscious effort.  I began by thinking of the people who had offered to help me when my mother died.  I remembered two friends who helped me price items for my garage sale.  Another directed people at the garage sale.  One friend took me to lunch.  Two other friends sorted items.  Another arranged the house for sale to look more appealing.  I don’t have that greeting card type friendship, but I have the type that I need, the kind that suits me.  Maybe I no longer have that one friend who regularly walked with me, but I have half a dozen who help me when I need it. I am beginning to to feel gratitude growing.  Lord, thank you for my friends who step in when I need them. 
I am an extreme introvert.  My parents moved four times during my childhood.  I lived in one city until age five and had one friend (Patrick).  I attended Kindergarten through 3rd grade at one suburban school (2 friends, Gail and Karen); fourth grade in another city (no friends).  Fifth and sixth grades were at an urban school (no friends), seventh and eighth at a different urban school (1 friend, Betty), ninth at a suburban school (2 friends (Candy and Karen), and my final high school years at another school (Candy, Karen, Kevin, Dave, and other friends).  I didn’t form any lasting friendships until I was in high school.  Those high school friends remain my friends to this day, and I have acquired more friends besides.  None of them are greeting card friends, but they are friends just the same. 

Gratitude focuses on what we have; not on what we don’t have.  Gratitude focuses on the quality; not the appearance.  Gratitude focuses on the giver; not the gift.  My friends are all high quality gifts from God. 

Now that I have gratitude, are the walks any easier?  No, not easier, but different.  Those same two women are still chattering away with laughter, and I am still following a circuitous route.  But as I do, I focus on what I have:  time to contemplate and to enjoy the rhythmic movement of my body as I connect with earth and pavement.  I give my walks to God and let him direct my thoughts.  With a sense of anticipation I look forward to one dinner with friends this week, another next week, and still another in the month to come.  I keep my eyes open for the friend who walks only during good weather and then only sporadically.  I think of my closest friend, my husband, who often cares for me more than I care for myself.  I pray for his day, that he would enjoy his work and arrive home safely.  And I think of Jesus, who is closer than a brother to me, who for the joy set before him became one of us.
I can practice gratitude for a few days, but without continual conscious recognition and thankfulness for the gifts I have been given, gratitude fades away and envy pops back into focus like an image hidden in a painting.  Painters have a term for this—pentimento—which refers to faint images of an artist’s original work visible through the completed work.  Pentimento literally means repentance or turning around.  The artist turns away from their original idea and paints something different.   In the same way, gratitude paints over envy with clean, bright colors.

When gratitude dims it must be renewed, but the danger is pride.  Too often we try to create gratitude in the same way we tend to covet:  by comparison of ourselves with others.  I can look at the headlines and be grateful that I have electricity while others suffer without refrigeration and air conditioning, that I am healthy when others are sick or disabled, and that I am employed while others are jobless.  It is then that I become proud, rather than grateful for what I have.  What’s the difference?

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’   “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
When we start comparing ourselves to others rather than simply being grateful, we become proud, thinking that all we have, we have because we are special.   Or we may believe that it is due to our own merit, our own work, that we have more than the next person.  We exude self-confidence.   Gratitude, however, reminds us that we deserve nothing.  Gratitude informs us that our very life is a gift and that the tools and benefits we are given in life are also gifts, given to us for our own use and also to benefit others.  When I look with gratitude at the gifts I have been given, there is no room for envy or coveting.  The root of gratitude is thankfulness.
All are indebted much to thee,
But I far more than all,
From many a deadly snare set free,
And raised from many a fall.
Overwhelm me, from above,
Daily, with thy boundless love.
What bonds of gratitude I feel
No language can declare;
Beneath the oppressive weight I reel,
'Tis more than I can bear:
When shall I that blessing prove,
To return thee love for love?
Spirit of charity, dispense
Thy grace to every heart;
Expel all other spirits thence,
Drive self from every part;
Charity divine, draw nigh,
Break the chains in which we lie!

All selfish souls, whate'er they feign,
Have still a slavish lot;
They boast of liberty in vain,
Of love, and feel it not.
He whose bosom glows with thee,
He, and he alone, is free.

Oh blessedness, all bliss above,
When thy pure fires prevail!
Love only teaches what is love:
All other lessons fail:
We learn its name, but not its powers,
Experience only makes it ours.

William Cowper

“Experience only makes it ours.”  Keep pursuing and you will gain the experience; gratitude will be yours to keep. 

What causes you to envy or covet?  How can you respond with gratitude?

Tiger photo by Eric Kilby from USA (YAWN  Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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