Part 6 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.
I keep hoping I’ll find a vice that doesn’t resonate. It’s not that I mind examining myself and finding spots for improvements. It’s quite the opposite. I’m an accomplished self critic, and these sermons have served as find fodder for my fault-finding mind.
Sermon #6 of the Vice and Virtue series, Envy and Kindness, were no exception. Before I enumerate my envious ways, I’ll clarify terms. Jealousy and envy seem to be synonyms, on first look. The focus of jealousy is fear of loss. The jealous lover’s energy goes toward concern that the beloved will be lost to another. It’s not the having of the other that preoccupies the lover, but the thoughts of losing what one has to another
The focus of envy is not on loss but instead on wanting what the other has. Material possessions and money are likely objects of envy, and one could envy another’s possession of a computer, car, or shoes. Envy, at least for this discussion, goes a bit further. Not only does the envious person desire the item the other has, envious one feels he or she compares poorly to the other person because he or she doesn’t own the item. It’s a matter of having a hole in the self: a hole that seems like it can only be filled by the stuff someone else possesses.
I’m generally not envious of other folk’s stuff. Not that a new laptop, larger TV, or more fuel-efficient car wouldn’t be nice, but I don’t have my identity tied up with any of that. Nope, I save my envy for life situations. Why go for the obvious material things when you can envy whole lifestyles?
I envy intact, healthy families. The kind with two parents under the same roof, working through the inevitable surprises that come with life, especially in a life with children. Adults dedicated to personal growth and strengthening the family, with all its often-messy and unpredictable relationships it contains. Not perfect families — they don’t exist. Just adults that persist in adjusting again and again, weathering and even thriving in the storms all families face. My heart hurts and my eyes fill just thinking about that.
According to the definition of envy, I have a hole that I think could be filled with this sort of family. I can buy that. I don’t spend much time thinking about the what ifs anymore. My boys and I are a tight family of our own, and I’m accustomed to 24/5.5 parenting punctuated by two nights and one day off each week. (One of the best parts of divorced parenting is the solitude of an empty house. Shh. Don’t tell.) But I don’t think it’s ideal. I still feel a gap. Not every day. Not as often as I used to feel one. But it’s still there. And I’m envious of those families I see with dedication to family, warts and all, and work to strengthen that primary unit. I’m envious of the tandem parenting these families can do.
I envy the ease at which many parent their children. I know, all kids present challenges. But I just want to plan a vacation or outing without wondering how many times my younger will melt down, overwhelmed by too many people, too much heat, or too much of something else. I’d like to go to an art fair, a state park, or even run a series of errands without watching him constantly for overload, knowing if he crashes, we’ve stayed out too long. I’m envious of those who plan a trip for a week or a day without wondering how their nine-year-old will manage, whether it’s too much, whether it’s better just to do without. Now, I’d not trade my younger son nor his Asperger’s in for any sum. He’s a bundle of strengths and weaknesses, like each of us, and I’m madly in love with the bundle. But it’s an explosive package that requires contingency planning that sometimes wears me out.
Perhaps this envy illustrates a lack of acceptance of my son’s quirks. I think the hole here is in expectations on my part. I’d generally expect a nine-year old to weather the ups and downs that come with a series of errands, an unexpected place we have to go, or a vacation to a new place. Heck, others figure a kid his age (who looks “normal”, whatever that means) can roll with changes without much more than a brief whine. But my son can’t, at least not yet.
The antidote to envy is kindness. Primarily, I see this as patience with and kindness for ourselves. When I feel my envy surge, it takes a good deal of patience with myself to bring me back to equilibrium. Often, letting the feeling come and, generally within a few minutes, pass, is far more effective than fighting the envy. I’d like to say I then reflect on what a loving, full family my boys and I are unto ourselves, but I’m not that centered. However, I generally don’t proceed by berating myself for failing to maintain that ideal or anything truly ineffective than that. I think part of the kindness to myself includes offering myself the chance to let the envy come and go rather than holding it tightly while pondering all my shortcomings and losses.
And the envy of families not struggling with a very challenging child? Again, it generally passes with patience. Kindness toward him, kindness from deep within me, helps, too. He doesn’t mean to be so difficult to parent. He’s not trying to be prickly and angry so much of the time. He’s truly uncomfortable and anxious when these episodes occur, likely more so than I’ve ever personally experienced. Much of this world is entirely unpredictable for him, and a good part is hard to interpret. When I can extend kindness to him (even when he’s screaming at me), some of the envy and anger drop away. I’m far from perfect at this, but I keep trying.
Six vices down, one to go. I could envy those that live a vice-free life (or at least don’t need 1000 words to discuss each vice in his or her life), or I could extend kindness to myself. I’ll take the latter, sure I’ll find more to contemplate number seven: pride.