Anti-envy is a common good

Anti-envy is a common good

The mystery revealed/11 - Avoiding confrontations makes sense, but there are times and ages when you just cannot do that.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  12/06/2022

"There are three kinds of disciples: those who teach Zen to others, those who take care of temples and shrines, and then there are the rice sacks and clothes hangers."

Nyogen Senzaki, 101 Zen Stories, n. 87

Due to the ambush of the satraps of King Darius, Daniel in the lions' den gives us a splendid page on the grammar of "looking at your peer and on the ethical value of prayer".

Envy consists in feeling happiness for the pain of others and pain for their happiness. It is a perverse use of the eyes (in-videre: to see badly): you will recognize the envious because they cannot look you in the eye; they are not able to hold your gaze for long. Dante places the envious in Purgatory, perhaps because they have already served part of their penance on earth, and he shows them to us with their eyes sewn shut: «for iron wire pierces and sews up» (Dante, Purgatorio XIII, 70).

Envy is at the root of Cain's fratricide, at the root of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, at the disobedience of Adam and Eve who believe in the envious reasoning of the serpent. Envy does not trigger at "superiors" or "inferiors" but only at peers: a professor does not envy a young student, and if he does (very bad indeed) it is a sign that he is beginning to feel and fear him as an equal (better). Cain envies his brother Abel, not God. Envy also needs the conviction that the talents of those who are envied are real. If we believe that our competitor is making a career out of fake talents or that he or she is cheating, envy is not what is triggered, but other feelings (anger, disdain). In order for the bad tree of envy and of envious hatred to take root, we must believe that the other person is really better and that his or her skill will have harmful effects on us. In the most serious cases, envy feeds solely on the talent of the other person, even if that talent does not cause any direct damage to us. Envy has a sister and her name is jealousy, but while envy is binary - A envies B -, jealousy has a ternary structure: A is jealous of B because C can take him or her away (one is not simultaneously jealous and envious of the same person).

Envy, furthermore, triggers spirals of negative reciprocity when the one who is envied rejoices in the envy he or she provokes: since I know that you are envious of my success, I too take a sneaky pleasure in telling you about my victories (and keeping silent about my defeats). Thus, a series of black holes of relational evils are generated, vicious moral circles that can only be broken by anti-envious people, that is, by those who rejoice in our the joys and suffer for our pains. The anti-envious are a very precious commodity in communities, because they absorb the pain and amplify the happiness of all. The moral quality of a community strongly depends on how many anti-envious people it has generated and retained, and vicious envious circles are a surefire indicator of community decline, when you come home in the evening and can no longer tell the good news of the day because you feel that your companions are upset by listening to you. And when you do not even have one anti-envious friend (a wife, a parent), life becomes (almost) impossible to bear. Faith is also the gift of certainty that there is at least one anti-envious Friend out there. A world that erases God from the earth increases envy among "equals" by flattening then and then using social envy to increase the GDP.

«Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom» (The Book of Daniel 6,3). King Darius, a character of dubious historical veracity, chooses Daniel as one of the three highest rulers of his kingdom, divided into 120 satrapies (provinces). Daniel, a deported Jew, is now in the same situation as Joseph in Egypt, who was elevated by the pharaoh to the status of vizier. Here too, we find ourselves in the midst of a political conflict: «At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God"» (Daniel 6,4-5). His colleagues know that Daniel is a just and loyal man, and they know that he will advance in his career thanks to these virtues. If envy is allowed to be cultivated, it always ends up generating certain behaviours. Envious acts to eliminate those who are envied, or to cancel (with defamation for example) that which makes them better. An envious person does not believe he or she could ever be equal those he or she envies by using legitimate means (they feel inferior), hence their lies and manipulations.

Daniel’s colleagues know him, they have studied him and thus they have identified his only great vulnus or flaw: his faith. Envious people observe those they envy before acting, they have their own kind empathy that they use in a perverse way. And when the people they envy not only have better skills but are also a better people, then their weak point coincides with their goodness, and that is where they will be targeted. Herein lies the perversion of this type of envy - envy of the skilled and good of heart - because those who are envious will use the goodness of others (which they do not envy) as a weapon to eliminate the skills they envy so much

«So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said: “May King Darius live forever! The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den”… So King Darius put the decree in writing» (6,6-9). The plan begins with a lie, a constant element in machinations where envy is involved - "all" the officials of the kingdom could not agree: Daniel certainly did not. Then we immediately discover another ingredient present in any similar process, which is activated when the plan also involves those who rule: identifying and exploiting a fragility of those in power. The envious pander to the rulers, because they are great manipulators (all sycophants manipulate). Here the two officials even make Darius believe that he is a god on earth. They know this temptation is impossible to resist for the king, who in fact signs the decree, captured by their envious plan - the first to end up in the pit is Darius himself.

We are now at the very centre of the story. Daniel learns of the decree, but does not change his way of life: « Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before» (Daniel 6,10). In the first chapter of the book, Daniel had been very skilled in not seeking a direct conflict with Nebuchadnezzar (due to the unclean food), showing great practical wisdom. Here he behaves differently, and does nothing to avoid being convicted. A young man and an elderly man (Daniel is an old man here) have different ideas regarding being prudent, they have different ways of calculating the costs and benefits of their actions, especially those which their dignity and truth depend on. Daniel does not change his way of praying in anything, he does not even close the windows. His envious colleagues were right; his faith was in fact his vulnerability. Those who envy do not only aim to take the place of those they envy; first, there is the malicious pleasure in forcing them to change their life, of conditioning theirs existence to the point of upsetting it. This is why Daniel's answer tells us something of the greatest importance: the only good thing to do in the face of the attacks of someone who is envious is to continue to carry on with your usual life as always.

There are moments when it becomes clear that changing your life for fear of the consequences of those who are envious and your enemies would mean losing your soul: not losing your life would really mean losing it. In many conflicts one can and must try to avoid confrontation, one can seek mediation and cautiously take one or two steps backwards for one's own good and for that of others. In many conflicts but... not in all, because in a few decisive circumstances it is simply necessary to continue life as usual - «If they told you that the end of the world would arrive in twenty minutes, what would you do?". «I would continue playing ball» (St. Luigi Gonzaga). Our dignity is at stake in that space found between "always" and "often": the total ethical quality of our life can depend on that one time in which we did not do what we had done so many other times, because we understood that this time, there was something different. Daniel could have begun to pray in secret, he could have closed the windows at least; but no: he continued his usual life, because that was, quite simply, the only life he could lead.

And in this extraordinary normality Daniel gives us one of the biblical pages that most reveal the civil, secular, political nature of true prayer. Prayer is also a subversive act, a «rise to rise again» (Rosselli brothers), because praying when someone forces us not to do so, tells all those in power that they are not God, that they are only «scarecrows in a watermelon field» (Jeremiah 10,5). Revolutions and ideas have changed the world, but so have prayers, when we have managed to continue praying in public when prudence advised us to close our windows. Whenever a powerful person would like us to pray only with closed windows, thus denying the public and political dimension of faith, the envious having already convinced him that he is a god: he is not an atheist; he is merely an idolater of himself.

Daniel is denounced by his colleagues (Daniel 6,12-14). The king perhaps understands that he has been tricked, but by now the law has become effective and cannot be revoked: «Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed» (Daniel 6,15). Those who are envious tend to know the law perfectly in order to use it to their advantage; they study diligently and pay off many lawyers. At this point Darius has no choice but to carry out his edict: «So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!"» (Daniel 6,16). And so it was. The next day, Daniele was still alive: «"My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight"… The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den» (Daniel 6,22-24).

The envious in Dante pray to Mary («I heard a cry of, "Mary, pray for us!"» Purgatorio XIII, 50) the icon of anti-envy. The education of our sons and daughters should above all be an education of not cultivating envious feelings, which begins in the family and then continues in school. Envy feeds on deadly drives, which end up destroying those who feel envy. There is no greater gift we can give to a child than helping him or her to become an anti-envious person, we will increase his or her happiness and that of everyone. Anti-envy is a common good.

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