Friday, September 26, 2008


A friend called to talk. She was in agony. “I feel envy”, she said, “I’m envious of someone with a nicer house.” I listened. My friend has a very nice house but I understood. I have felt enough envy to know its acidy pain and the way that the shame of feeling it can silence us. Even those of us who swear to “feel all our feelings” step back from envy. I have envied people’s clothes, cars, jobs and success. It’s embarrassing; I have a nice life, but envy has little to do with having enough.

Philosopher, David Hume, writing of envy in 1739 said, “It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity. A common soldier bears no envy for his general compared to what he will feel for his sergeant. The greater number of people we compare ourselves to, the more there will be for us to envy”. It turns out that we compare ourselves most often to our friends. That’s what makes envy so painful. So what is envy good for?

My house-craving friend and I began to dig under our envies. What surfaced was a belief that the house, shoes, car, or whatever could fix us. But I have to keep relearning, you can’t fill a hole that exists in the past. What most of us want is connection and community, but we go to the wrong places to find it, and paradoxically we think that if we already have it, it’s not enough. Hence envy double-teams with marketing and we shop like addicts.

I look at my closet. Envy is the con man who tugs at my sleeve and says, “Listen, just for a second.” He points out the un-purchased shoes or bag and swears, “Come on, just one more.”
There is some truth to the accusation that advertising creates demand but that’s not the whole story. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him wear Hermes or drink Evian. The envy in me reaches out as much as advertising reaches in; I am at best a partner and at worst an accomplice.

Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor, and author of Point of Purchase writes that: “The appeal of a shopping spree is not that you’ll buy a lot of stuff; the appeal is that, among the stuff you buy, you’ll find what you truly desire.”

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