Fighting off the green monster…

“Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands.”

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Those words must have slammed into Saul’s consciousness like a ton of bricks. They certainly slammed into mine yesterday when I heard them at Mass. Perhaps the women who sang those words in the streets meant to praise both their king and the young man who slew the giant; perhaps they meant no harm. But to have yourself lined up so starkly next to another, and to see that you lack by comparison, hurts so much. What makes the hurt worse is its very ugliness. Jealousy is evil, and the hurt it causes must be evil, too, and people who feel jealous are always evil. Isn’t jealousy the main characteristic of the evil stepmothers and stepsisters and rivals in fairy tales and old books?

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Remember this jealous lady? Things didn’t go so well for her…

To tell the honest and painful truth, I’ve always been jealous. I guess it’s a natural outgrowth of comparisons, and I have a terrible habit of comparing. It’s an old habit that goes back at least to the sixth grade, when I shot up suddenly to my full height and stood out like a freak among my more petite and delicate peers. It’s probably safe to say we all — or most of us — fall into the comparison trap to some extent. These comparisons can be based on anything, from physical characteristics to personality traits to talents. Maybe we compare due to a natural urge to categorize or measure our own value, or to get a clearer picture of who we are. Whatever the reason, once you let yourself fall into the habit of comparing yourself with others, you eventually end up stuck in one of two lies. Either you believe you’re better than everyone, because based on comparisons you have a higher “score”; or you believe you’re worse. And you can get so caught up in whichever lie you’re living that you completely lose sight of who you are.  

Those of you who know me best know full well which lie I’ve been caught up in for most of my life.

Maybe that’s why yesterday’s reading hit me so hard. Of course his jealousy was wrong, but I get where Saul was coming from. He didn’t hear, “Saul has slain thousands” because all he saw was the comparison. David had achieved more, David was more well-liked, therefore Saul must be worth nothing. 

How often have I gotten caught up in this way of thinking? What good are my thousands when someone else has ten thousands? 

Of course I’m not racking up a body count, but at the heart of it I don’t think my comparisons are much different from Saul’s. Maybe I have intelligence, but I can name off three dozen friends who are quite a bit smarter than I am, so really I’m just an idiot. Maybe I’m reasonably attractive, but I know a hundred girls who are prettier, so I’m basically ugly. Maybe people really like me once they get to know me, but I have so many friends who are likable right off, so I have no shot at meaningful friendships. Maybe I have specific talents, but I know so many people who have so much more talent, so there’s no point in bothering.

Granted, I don’t want to kill any of the people who rank higher in any sort of comparison. I’ve never contemplated murder or considered the best way to “off” the better-looking girl/more talented musician/more successful writer/etc. But I do let my comparisons color and shape my relationships. Jealousy is a poison running through so many of my interactions and tinting even some of my dearest memories.

For a long time I thought that poison only affected me, so I kept it to myself. But that was just another lie that grew out of the main one I’d been living. “You don’t matter much,” I told myself, “so your bitter feelings aren’t going to hurt anyone else anyway. Not like they care.” In a way that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve had more people, especially my male friends, tell me in the past year that they thought I hated them when we first met. That’s such a blow, because of course I didn’t hate them — I just assumed they’d have no use for me, and apparently my bitterness showed…and it certainly affected people other than myself. 

Pope Francis’ homily yesterday on this reading drives at the heart of jealousy and envy, and the way these vices tear people apart. Maybe you’re not spreading rumors or actively wishing someone else harm, but are you withdrawing into yourself and shutting others out? Are you projecting your own self-hatred onto people who would probably like you very much if you only liked yourself a little?

At the heart of it all is ingratitude. Pope Francis says that “the jealous person…doesn’t know how to sing, how to praise.” As I’ve learned through long, hard experience, praise is where we have to start if we want to run jealousy out of our hearts.

I remember discovering this in a very concrete way while I was on retreat one summer years ago. A girl in my group sang like an angel, and the retreat leaders had asked her to lead some songs. I felt the usual nauseating waves of jealousy as she started off, the bitter comparisons of my only decent singing voice to her gripping talent. Then I remembered a conversation I’d overheard her having just the day before. Someone praised her talent and she very sincerely replied, “Thank you. All for the glory of God, right?” It suddenly put things into stark perspective. Here she was using her beautiful voice to sing songs of praise (literally), and all I could think about was myself. I remember I actually started laughing at that point, because looking at it that way showed very clearly that I had nothing to do with this situation. My only place there was to listen, to enjoy, to praise God with her, and to praise God for her talent. It was a moment of pure grace for me, to be able to see this so clearly and to say in all sincerity, “Thank you, Lord, for her incredible talent.”I wish I could say I was never jealous again after that, but it would be a blatant lie. Still, it was the beginning of a new outlook, and it gave me a new weapon to fight off a nasty old habit.

Jealousy is bitter by nature because it’s an always futile attempt to put the “I” at the center of everything, where it can’t subsist, because it doesn’t belong there. Jealousy kills, as Pope Francis says. It kills relationships, it kills love of the other, and it kills properly ordered self-love. Praise restores balance by taking our focus off ourselves and putting it on the One Who is the true Center of everything, the only Center that can hold. 

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