JANA G. PRUDEN
Aug. 2, 2020
There have been moments, this Pandemic Summer, where Cheryl Kim has felt like she had it all.
She and her partner were able to accelerate a move from Toronto to Mont-Tremblant, Que., and there they had space and nature, places to run and ride their bikes without crushes of people, possibly the perfect place to be in a pandemic. On one recent day, Ms. Kim, who is training for a triathlon, went for a run, then jumped in the lake for a swim. Drinking a smoothie later, she reflected on just how lucky she was, particularly in a time of such difficulty and upheaval.
“It was the perfect morning for me,” she remembers. “Everything I could ask for, my happy place.”
But while she felt fortunate in almost every way, she also sometimes felt a little twinge, a pang of something as green as the lush summer leaves. It happened particularly when she saw others in her field posting on social media about their plentiful work contracts.
And, in those times, Ms. Kim would think, a tad enviously, “I would love to have more work.”
Ms. Kim is not alone in her envy. Alongside gluttony, sloth and greed (looking at you, toilet paper hoarders), envy is increasingly vying for top spot among the pandemic’s cardinal sins.
Sara Protasi, an assistant philosophy professor at the University of Puget Sound and author of the forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Envy, says she is seeing (and sometimes experiencing) how envy is playing a heightened role in these strange pandemic times.
“I do think right now there might be more envy being felt,” she says.
And while she maintains envy isn’t always bad, she adds: “the pandemic doesn’t make it easy.”
U.S. President Donald Trump recently proclaimed the United States “the envy of the world” for its pandemic response, and while that may not actually be true amid skyrocketing infection rates in some areas, who among us has not felt an ugly sting eyeing cities or communities or entire countries with lower infection rates, bigger contact bubbles or more freedom?
Who has not looked longingly toward the places that are in more advanced stages of reopening, or which offer even a glimpse of something that looks like life as it used to be?
“Envy implies somebody having something you don’t, and I was thinking, ‘Well, we’re all in this mess – except for New Zealand,’ ” said Edmonton resident Karen Howell, confessing a common kind of coronavirus covetousness. “I envy New Zealand.”
In an informal and not-at-all-scientific survey for this story, homes, families, jobs, health and access to nature consistently emerged as sources of both great gratitude, and of niggling envy.
That the two go hand in hand is no surprise. The pandemic has, if nothing else, put a lot of things into sharp focus, and while that may mean appreciating anew the things we have, with so much distraction stripped away, the things we don’t have may also feel particularly acute.
We may envy our relatives’ steady jobs or spacious houses, our neighbours who shrewdly scooped up trampolines and kiddie pools before they were all sold out, our friends’ ability to work from home. We may envy a colleague’s perfectly baked sourdough, as we struggle to keep the children under control while juggling Zoom meetings in our sweatpants. We may be deeply envious of our editor who is at her cabin near a lake while we sit in our stuffy home office in the city trying to write a story about envy. (You know, just for example.)
We may even envy our former selves, and the lives we used to have.
Prof. Protasi says an increase in envy may be spurred in part by people spending even more time on social media, a well-documented envy enhancer. But she says envy is also often tied to feelings of a lack of control, which may be especially relevant during the pandemic, if other people appear to be doing better than us while we feel powerless to change our circumstances.
And she warns envy can be tricky. Prof. Protasi says in some cases feelings of resentment or righteous indignation – say, being outraged that someone is sending their children back to daycare or school – can actually be a disguised form of envy, if we would like to do the same things ourselves but don’t have the option.
She says the key is recognizing envy for what it is, and then finding ways to deal with it.
“Everybody feels envy, whether they tell you or not,” she said. “Psychologists and anthropologists tell us that envy is a cross-cultural emotion. Some people may be prone to it, but everybody feels envy at some point.”
Alison Gu, who moved back to Vancouver to stay with her parents early in the pandemic, says she’s been feeling lucky for everything she has, but her friends and community are far away, and being away from them is difficult. Sometimes, when she thinks about them going through this time together, envy sneaks in.
“It’s bittersweet,” she says. “I’m glad they have each other and I’m glad they are able to spend time together. But I wish I was there.”
While envy typically gets a bad rap (you don’t get to be a Deadly Sin without a pretty bad reputation), Prof. Protasi notes that certain forms of envy can actually be very productive and positive, including by spurring people to work toward something in their own life through emulative or admiring envy, or bringing goals and priorities into focus.
She says envy can even play a valuable role in illuminating broader inequities in society, particularly when there are finite resources to be shared. When we see billionaires lounging by their pools while others struggle to pay the bills or access basic health care, are we envious – or is it actually unfair?
In these ways, Prof. Protasi says exploring envy and why we feel it can be both useful and clarifying, particularly in this time of profound challenge and change.
“Envy has a signalling value,” she says. “It might tell you things you don’t realize about yourself. … Envy is very informative about what we truly care about, sometimes below our consciousness.”
This has been the case with Ms. Howell, who says she found herself surprised at her reaction to people’s pictures and videos on social media, particularly around the daily hubbub of children and families.
“The thing I guess I’m envious about – and I never thought I’d say this – is people with kids,” she said.
Another Edmonton woman, Hailey Siracky, says her envy of people’s access to outdoor spaces earlier in the pandemic didn’t entirely prompt her move to a house with a backyard, “but it helped.” And her envy of the companionship other people have in this period led her to think about those priorities in her own life.
“The awareness that life is short is a little more in the air now than it was before,” she said.
So while envy may not be pleasant – in his book on the subject, writer Joseph Epstein notes that it’s the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that isn’t any fun – if you use it positively, it isn’t always a bad thing.
Ms. Gu says when she feels envious, she tries to channel her feelings into doing things that can help someone else, which makes her feel better. And, as Ms. Kim has found, envy can be inspiring and motivating at a time when those things aren’t always easy to muster.
“The idea of envy is often portrayed as a negative quality, but envy is also about dreams, right?” she says. “What you look forward to and what you aspire to. I think that’s actually an important thing to understand.”
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