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Chasing after a wind

Chasing after a wind


This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a ministry of St John’s Cathedral in Denver, CO


by Charles LaFond


Someone recently asked me what one word I would use to sum up America.  Before I could self-edit, I blurted out a word which made the group of a dozen people in a lavish living room go dead silent as if I had just taken off my clothes or passed gas or urinated in the potted palm while holding a lit cigarette.  And they stayed silent.  And it was not a fun night.


I said: “envy.”


And though I expect never to be invited back to that particular mansion, I think I would stand by my answer.  America thinks it runs on freedom or coffee or democracy or equality; and it has many of those good things in its credits.  But I am afraid envy seems to run the whole machine.


What do I have?  What do they have?  What does advertising and marketing tell me they have that I could have?  What does America have?  What does the middle east have? What do my colleagues have? What do my friends have?  Is that priest paying more or faster attention to them than to me? Is my spouse too friendly with that one over by the piano with the martini? Wait.  Does he have a bigger martini than I do?


It is not greed that wizens philanthropy and generosity, it is fear that wizens philanthropy: “Do I have enough?”


If envy were not at play in humanity, this would be Eden – the entire planet would have a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace, wood, clean water and a plate of good food. But the myth of Eden tells us that one person wanted something they could not have – and taking it began a new system. Some would say this is naive.  I would say it is Christian.  Even spiritual – well beyond Christian.


And envy inside the church is the worst.  Well, it feels like the worst.  It destroys great careers, sends good clergy packing, elevates the creepy ones and infects churches with a form of irritable bowel syndrome that not only fouls health but air and water. Listen in at a gathering of clergy and you will generally hear conversations about size. Insecure bishops are like Sméagol with a razor blade in each hand, circled by hissing simpering canons. And as our church is un-friend-ed by the next generations, the violence of clergy against clergy as they lunge for the richest churches will make the Slytherin team at Hogwarts look like a Nebraska Montessori.


Envy runs this economy of ours. Envy sells things that make people rich. Envy takes perfectly wonderful people and sours, embitters, wizens them. What I want and what they have and what they have that I want.


And then, finally, there is the worst poison of all – that tiny power – that molten drop: envy-unawares.  That is the most vicious poison of all.  When a person is envious, well, that is hard to manage – one must dance around their ego, dropping small compliments like feeding steak to a leopard to keep them occupied.  But when a person is envious but unaware that they are envious, well that is defcon-five-danger. Unawares-envy poisons the air, not just the martini. It invades an atmosphere. With envy, one must simply dance around it.  But with envy unawares, one must back out of a room slowly like retreating from a nuclear bomb balanced precariously on the top of a candlestick.


And of course the envy I feel when I see advertising or the sparkly possessions, or the physical beauty, or the talent or the good luck of others –  makes me want to have the spiritual equivalent of a shower before re-approaching God, who, is not appalled or disgusted at my envy; but rather sad, like a mother who sees her child ripping the wing off a beautiful butterfly – you know – because it is so pretty and would look nice in his scrapbook.


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John Chilton

While I agree with much in your essay, I disagree that envy drives the economy. Freedom is more like it.

Here’s a counter narrative. It begins by observing that for all but a few, life was nasty, brutish and short up until the last 200 years — the hockey stick of economic development:

“The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“To use another big concept, what came—slowly, imperfectly—was equality. It was not an equality of outcome, which might be labeled “French” in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Piketty. It was, so to speak, “Scottish,” in honor of David Hume and Adam Smith: equality before the law and equality of social dignity. It made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account. It was, as Smith put it, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.””

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