Envy has a terrible reputation. It has been blamed for so many crimes and atrocities that we have learned to dread it. When it emerges within us, it is a burning feeling that is difficult to control and difficult to contain. What’s more, it makes us want things we would never otherwise think of, let alone crave. Because of these discomforts and precarious ambitions that envy evokes within us, humanity has been seeking ways to overcome it for many centuries.
However, I do not think we should overcome it. Suppressing it or annihilating it (assuming we could) would be tantamount to saying that there are things in the world that are redundant or inherently and incorrigibly harmful, and we should get rid of them. Baal HaSulam, my teacher’s father and the greatest kabbalist of the 20th century, ridiculed this approach; he cynically referred to people who advocated it as “world reformers.”
In his essay “Peace in the World,” Baal HaSulam wrote that if we were to let world reformers have their way, “they would certainly have by now cleansed man entirely, leaving in him only what is good and useful,” in their eyes. One of the filths they would certainly cleanse would be envy, and that would be an unforgivable mistake.
Just as we do not stop using electricity although it can kill us, we should not suppress envy. Just as we have learned to utilize electricity to our benefit, we should learn to utilize envy to our benefit.
In part, we already do it. Mothers often turn their children’s attention to the success of other children in order to push them to try harder. By doing so, they use the child’s natural envy. When children see that their mother appreciates someone else, it makes them envy that other person and drives them to improve in order to gain their mother’s appreciation, too.
Envy is not a pleasant feeling, but pleasant feelings do not make us grow. Need is also not a pleasant feeling, yet need is the mother of invention. Likewise, although envy isn’t pleasant, it is the engine of development and progress. To put it bluntly, were it not for envy, we’d still be in the stone-age.
Like electricity, if used correctly, envy builds us and does not destroy others. When we use it in this way, seeing other people’s success makes us grateful to them as it is thanks to their success that we, too, are improving.
Therefore, we should develop a mature approach to envy, and thank the people whose success makes us succeed, as well. If we can achieve this, we will find that after some time, we will learn to appreciate them so much that we will begin to love them for the gift that they have given us through envy.
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