The Men’s Group at my church has been reading and discussing the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies” by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. DeYoung believes that. by studying the “capital vices” described by the Desert Fathers and the medieval monastics, we can learn a great deal about the temptations we face and about harmful cultural practices. The seven vices described by this tradition are seen as capital vices in the sense that they are source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring.
As I’ve read the book and thought about these vices, it seems to me that most of them have less power over me than they used to. Still, some aspects of them seem particularly tempting to me and other older adults (I’m not among the oldest of the old, but, at nearly 70 years of age, I’m definitely not young or even middle-aged anymore). I thought I would write briefly about each of the “glittering vices” that DeYoung describes, reflecting on how they manifest themselves among those of us who are older.
So, then, the first vice that DeYoung considers is envy. When I envy, I want what someone else has. As DeYoung explains it, envy is different from covetousness in that we covet our neighbor’s possessions (BMWs or McMansions) whereas we envy our neighbor’s internal qualities, who he or she is. The envier doesn’t want the thing itself, other than as a marker of success; he or she wants whatever it is about the other person that shows the envier up as inferior. The envier measures his or her self-worth comparatively–I’m only worthwhile if I’m better than my rival. As it worsens, envy progresses from thoughts and emotions (feeling offended at the talents or successes of others, pleasure at another’s difficulties) to words and deeds (belittling others, false accusations, fostering antagonism against others). Envy stems from a sense of inadequacy, a sense of one’s own unworthiness.
One of the examples DeYoung gives of envy is Antonio Salieri and his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as both are depicted in the movie Amadeus. As a young man, Salieri prayed for musical talent, and he was a reasonably successful composer. Then Mozart appeared on the scene, with prodigious musical gifts that far exceeded Salieri’s. Salieri was immediately envious, and his envy grew until he devised a scheme that helped hasten Mozart’s premature death. Salieri hated Mozart; as DeYoung points out, he also hated God, for it was God that gave Mozart the greater talent. When I envy I see God as unjust, thinking that, if he were fair, the scales would be recalibrated and I would be the superior one.
Are older adults as prone to envy as they were when they were younger? DeYoung describes the opening scene in Amadeus, which takes place decades after the rest of the movie. Salieri is an old man who has recently attempted suicide. A priest visits to hear his confession, and Salieri uses the occasion to play on the piano a few of the tunes he wrote. He expects the priest will recognize them, but, repeatedly, the priest shakes his head ‘no.’ Salieri plays one last tune. The priest immediately says, “Yes, yes, I know it” and continues to hum along even after Salieri has stopped playing. Angry now, Salieri spits out “That was Mozart.” His rival has long been dead, but Salieri still compares himself and still feels jealous.
As with Salieri, we older adults can continue to envy those who years before seemed to be our betters. I know a man in his late sixties who regularly goes on tirades about a former rival, demeaning that person to anyone who is willing to listen. The wound to his self-worth, which was highly dependent on proving to others that he was smarter than they were, had never healed. Even after we’ve retired, many of us are old generals still ruminating about past battles, trying to convince ourselves that, if we had the opportunity, we would be victorious the next time around.
Retirement can also be the occasion for new episodes of envy. Another man I know retired as soon as he could draw a pension and Social Security, even though this meant a significant decrease in income. He now goes to the local coffee shop, where he’s joined a group of retirees who gather there several days a week. One of the men has a second home at the beach, another vacations in exotic locales, and a third just bought a new car. The new retiree can’t do any of these things, and he’s envious. (To some degree he’s covetous of what his new friends have, but there’s definitely a component of envy present as well; he sees himself as less than them because he can’t do what they do.) He comes home and criticizes them to his wife, burdening her with his misery.
So older adults can be afflicted with envy both as the sequel to past comparisons to others and as the result of new ones. Fortunately, not all of us fall into this trap. Even among those of us who were envious in the past, many have been able to move on. In this regard, living in the present rather than dwelling on the past is a good antidote to envy. Another antidote is practicing gratitude for who God made us to be and how he has blessed us. It is hard to resent God for not making us like someone else if we are praising him for how he made us. Finally, DeYoung suggests that we counter the tendency to envy by performing acts of kindness towards others (and not calling attention to what we’ve done or comparing them to what anyone else is doing). Acts of compassion get us out of ourselves, focusing on the needs of others. This suggestion fits well with the proclivity of older adults to volunteer either formally or informally in order to help others. Such acts of service not only benefit those in need; they benefit us. And one of the ways they do so is by making us less prone to envy.
Older adults aren’t immune to envy, especially if that has been their proclivity throughout life. By living in the present, practicing gratitude, and helping others, we’re able to keep envy from controlling our lives.