Today I have the honor of publishing my first guest post! Ryan Jenkins is a practising Stoic and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado: Boulder. Take it away Ryan!
Stoic Advice for Overcoming Envy
Envy is incredibly common, and it’s even more distracting. We are all guilty of envying someone else: a coworker wins a promotion that you were up for, a friend receives a comment that you felt you deserved instead, or you simply see someone drive by in a nice car. Accompanying envy is often a feeling that you were more worthy than them, that you have been dealt a personal injustice. These feelings are harmful and counterproductive and they can consume us unless we refocus on what is important. How should a Stoic respond when envy rears its ugly head?
The “sovereign percept” of Stoicism is that some things are under our control and others are not. And all suffering – including envy – results from the struggle to control things we will never be able to control. How can we overcome envy? Two ways: first, we should realize that we are angry about something we cannot control; second, we should focus on the things we can control.
First, notice the benefits you covet might not have truly been open to you. And it would be foolish to envy someone for gaining something you were never capable of receiving, just as it would be foolish to wish that you had been born at a different time and place.
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait until it reaches you. (Handbook 15.)
Second, if those things really were open to you, realize that the person who has those things has traded something to get them; they have paid a price for what they have. And it’s a price you might not have been willing to pay yourself (Discourses 3:15). Does someone have a nice car or house? Presumably they work long hours, and perhaps in a job you wouldn’t be happy in. Does someone have a position of power? Presumably because they have spent their adult lives politicking and ingratiating themselves to others.
Third, envy is a waste of time since it distracts you from your own projects. “How great a rest from labor he gains who does not look to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he himself is doing” (Meditations 4:18). This is the real harm of envy – that it takes you out of the present moment and derails your focus on your own goals. Remember your ultimate goal should be perfecting your nature as a rational being and directing your effort toward the benefit of all people. Someone else’s getting a promotion doesn’t stop you one bit from accomplishing either of these.
In fact, dealing with envy is an opportunity to demonstrate virtue. You cannot control the promotion, or the compliment, or whatever it may be, especially now that it is in the past. What you can control is your response – and there is always the opportunity to act virtuously in our responses. (indirect source – Meditations 2:9)
Which virtue is appropriate for this circumstance? I suggest graciousness: cultivating a sincere and generous happiness for the erstwhile subject of your envy. Realize that, of course, what someone else has doesn’t make you better or worse off. This realization is helped by reminding yourself that whatever they have is not truly good or desirable, and that what is good is always within your power to achieve.
Ryan Jenkins is a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder and a practicing Stoic. His favorite aphorism is Meditations 8:59: “People come into the world for the sake of one another. Therefore, either teach them or bear with them.”
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