The destructive power of envy

Back in the 1960’s I was managing a grain elevator in a small Saskatchewan town.  Norman, the biggest grain farmer in the area, had a farm worker named Lenny, a former long haul trucker.  Norman put a lot of confidence in Lenny, paid him well and provided a good house for him and his young family.  He even promised to help Lenny start farming on his own, by renting some land and using Norman’s equipment.

Most of the time Lenny knew that he had latched on to a unique opportunity to build a future for himself and his family.  However, he liked to take a few drinks after work and the alcohol blurred his vision.  When he considered Norman’s wealth and his own meagre financial situation, it didn’t look fair.  The more he drank, the worse it looked.  He expressed those feelings to others, but had enough sense to avoid contact with Norman when he wasn’t sober.  Finally the inevitable happened: one evening Lenny was in an alcohol-fuelled state of mind and Norman came over to talk about the next day’s work.  Lenny unloaded all his grievances about the unfairness of the financial disparity between Norman and himself.  Then he went back to being  a truck driver.

George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, is a parable of the folly of thinking that we will all get a bigger piece of the pie if we get rid of the one who has the biggest piece.  In the book, the pigs on Mr. Jones’ farm convince the other animals that they are being exploited by Mr. Jones.  They drive Mr. Jones off the farm and go about running it themselves, the pigs talking all the time about how they will all be better off as they work together.  Working and living conditions seem to be deteriorating, yet the pigs are such convincing talkers that eventually they sit in the farmer’s house playing cards and drinking toasts with neighbouring farmers and the rest of the animals cannot tell the difference between the pigs and the farmers.

When we are self-centred, we see life as a zero sum game.  The size of the pie is fixed, so when my neighbour gets more there is less left for me.  When enough people think this way, it discourages any activity that might grow the size of the pie.  People watch to make sure no one is getting more than his fair share.  The economy stagnates; the pie remains the same size, or even shrinks.

All men are created equal, but we have different talents and skills.  Some are able to see a need and find a way to satisfy that need.  In doing so, they enlarge the pie, creating job opportunities for others and possibly other business opportunities.  Does it matter that they get to eat a larger piece of the pie?  Or am I thankful that they have increased the size of my piece of the pie?  Envy is a powerful emotion and doesn’t respond well to logic.  If my piece of the pie is all I can eat, does it really matter that my neighbour has a larger piece?

My uncle Henry always admired his uncle’s farm.  This was just what he would like to have for himself, a beautiful yard and big, well-kept buildings that made a statement about the prosperity of the owner.  One day Uncle Henry learned that the bank was about to foreclose on his uncle.  Moreover, the bank wanted to make a quick sale to avoid further expense.  Uncle Henry was in a position to buy it for what the bank was asking and he went home to tell his wife the good news.

Aunt Helen was a quiet and submissive wife, who never disagreed with her husband.  But this time she said, “Henry, you can’t buy that farm.  People will say you took advantage of your uncle when he was down.”  That was the end of it.  Uncle Henry learned to appreciate his own farm more and never again cast envious glances at what had been his uncle’s dream farm.

“May each one of you, rather than considering his own interests, consider also those of others” (Philippians 2:4, as it reads in the Louis Segond French translation).

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