A Penance of Gratefulness

A few weeks ago, I went to confession and was given the penance of gratefulness by my spiritual father.  It is a good penance, and I am trying to take it very seriously.  I have a lot to be grateful for – more than most, probably – but actually FEELING grateful is a whole different thing.  Gratefulness is not my natural mode of being, as it turns out, so I am finding this seemingly simple penance particularly difficult. 

I’ve been pretty candid with myself, with those close to me and with the readers of this blog about my struggle with acedia.  What I haven’t explored very much, however, is my struggle with envy. 

The reason my struggle with envy has been off the table of exploration until recently is because it has been off of my radar completely.  That’s because I had a definition of envy that was tied up with the definition of jealousy.  

We all know jealousy.  It’s that “green-eyed monster” that comes out to play, usually when something we possess is being threatened with loss.  It is characterized by a sense of possessiveness, overprotectiveness, defensiveness, vigilance and intense stomach-ache-inducing anxiety over losing something (or someone) precious.   This emotion is usually, but not always, experienced when an intimate relationship is being threatened with loss by a third party.  For example, if your significant other flirts with someone else, you’re likely to feel jealous because there is fear of losing him/her. The fruits of jealousy are usually additionally strong emotions of betrayal and/or outrage that can lead to some really unhealthy, and even irrational, behaviors on the part of the jealous person.   Clearly, the word “jealousy” refers to a very specific context, but we tend to use it incorrectly when talking about things that we actually envy.

While jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something that is already possessed, envy is a reaction to desiring something that one does not possess. Feelings of envy can be caused by something as small and insignificant as desiring a material possession (houses, cars, etc.), physical attribute (good looks, physical health, etc.) or general life situation (marriage, job, etc.) that someone else has, which we can probably all relate to on some level.  It’s a small irritation to deal with in most cases.  On the other hand, envy can also truly interrupt contentment, cause resentment and rob the soul of gratefulness because envy is not an isolated negative feeling.  There is a reason envy, unlike jealousy, is commonly listed as a “deadly sin” in theological discourse – it deprives the soul of gratitude.

Here’s the thing about envy: it is oftentimes characterized by a whole lot more than just desire for something that someone else has.  Rather, it is characterized by a desire for something that is out of reach.  However, this idea of the desired thing “being out of reach” may not always be reality, but only a perception – an opportunity for taking pity and feeling like a victim.  This can create a sort of romanticized tragedy because the desired object, person, attribute, etc. is seemingly at a distance.  “Woe is me! I never get what I want!”  I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I relate.

Envy can also cause the envious person to engage in a process of idealization and devaluation.  Idealization is basically the exaggeration of the positive qualities of a person, and devaluation is the exaggeration of the negative qualities of a person.  In the case of the envious person, she idealizes the other person, and simultaneously devalues herself.  Another term for this is “splitting” (also known as “all-or-nothing thinking” and “black and white thinking”).  This is a common defense mechanism in which a person thinks in extremes and has difficulty thinking about both positive and negative qualities of the self and others in a realistic and holistic way (for example: “She is so beautiful and gets lots of attention.  I look nothing like her and don’t get as much attention.  I must be ugly.” “We have the same degree and professional experience, but he is a manager and I am not.  There must be something wrong with me.”). This unfair comparison of the self to others can quickly lead to a feeling of inferiority.  Thus, unlike jealousy, in which the reaction is to the threat of loss, envy is the reaction to a sense of lack within the self, and therefore usually coincides with negative self-worth and/or self-doubt.  

Now that envy is on my radar, I can see so many examples of it in my life – past and present.  I’ve always wondered why only the things at a distance seem extraordinary to me; why contentment has always felt synonymous with simple-mindedness; why I am constantly vacillating between idealism and the slow, stable (i.e. in my mind, mundane) elements of life.  I’m not really sure when I decided simple gratitude for what I already have wasn’t for me. Thus, my penance.

In addition to the penance of gratefulness, my spiritual father has basically told me that I’ve done enough of the melancholia schtick – constantly focusing on my faults, sins and the negative aspects of life.  Thus, I will be taking a break (temporarily or permanently, I’m not sure) from my research, writing and contemplating despondency in order to focus on gratefulness instead.  I honestly don’t exactly know how to do this.  Like I said, gratitude is not my natural state of being.  I’m not even sure I know how to write about anything without some level of angst and melancholy.  But, as I have recently come to understand, this “state of being” that I find myself in often is not who I truly am.  It has been adapted over time, and just like my negative state of being has been adapted over time, a state of being that embraces gratefulness more often can also be adapted over time.  After all, we are not beings determined solely by our past circumstances and negative tendencies.  We are free to choose who we want to be – HOW we want to be.  Every small step in the direction of gratitude and away from melancholy on my part will be proof of that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s