“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” – Gore Vidal
What makes us wish ill for others is Envy – a severe disease of the heart. It was envy which made Iblis (Satan) refuse to obey the command of God to bow before Adam. Iblis did not seek forgiveness from God because envy makes it impossible to admit a wrong.
Envy occurs most commonly among friends, close relatives and associates. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “Every possessor of any blessing is envied.” It is important to distinguish between passive and active envy. Being a social animal, man inevitably feels some pangs of envy because there are always people who are superior in wealth, intelligence, likeability and other qualities. However, if this envy does not make a person do anything to harm the envied person, it can be tolerated. It is when this passive envy turns active that it consumes good deeds the way fire devours dry wood, as said by the Prophet (pbuh).
The signs of envy are subtle, but they can be observed in:
1. The Eyes: Envy is reflected in the eyes. The root of the Latin word for envy, invidia, means “to look through, to probe with the eyes like a dagger.” German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer devised a quick way to test envy. Tell suspected enviers some good news about yourself – a promotion, a new car – and you will notice a very quick expression of disappointment. Equally, tell them some misfortune of yours and notice the gleam of joy in their eyes. This joy is known as schadenfreude. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “The evil eye is real.”
2. Poisonous Praise: Say you have completed a project, an assignment or some creative venture. Enviers will praise the money you will now be making, implying that is the main reason you have worked on it. You want praise for the work itself and the effort that went into it, but enviers will imply that you have done it for the money.
3. Backbiting: Gossip is a frequent cover for envy, a convenient way to vent it in the form of malicious rumours and cooked-up stories. When people talk about others behind their backs, their eyes light up and their voice become animated – it gives them a joy comparable to schadenfreude.
4. Betrayal: Enviers often use friendship and intimacy as the best way to wound the people they envy. They display unusual eagerness to become your friend. Through the closeness they establish they are able to gather information about you and find your weak points. And, suddenly, they attack you with barbs and taunts. They are like lawyers building a case against you.
It is also useful to recognise the types of enviers:
1. The Leveller: They have a keen sense of injustice and unfairness. They cannot appreciate excellence in almost anyone, except those who are dead. They are highly sensitive to feelings of inferiority. They associate excellence with luck. Their main goal is to bring everyone down to the same mediocre level they occupy.
2. The Self-Entitled: Many people feel entitled to success and good fortune. At work, they like to be charming and political, rather than efficient. They hate those who work hard and stay away from office politics.
3. The Status Conscious: Humans are very sensitive to rank and position. They measure status by the attention and respect they receive. If you are of a higher social status than they are, they will conceal their envy by appearing to admire your success. But if you are a peer or happen to work with them, they will be sniffing for any sign of favouritism or privileges they do not have and they will attack you in underhand ways to undermine your position.
4. The Attacher: You will inevitably find people who are drawn to those who are successful or powerful, not out of admiration but out of envy. These types have a trait that is common to all enviers: they lack a clear purpose in their life. They try to draw you into a relationship by the flattery and attention they give you.
When all is same between people, envy does not show itself. But when someone is suddenly elevated in rank, the dynamic changes. Low self-esteem is the feeling that one’s worth is compromised by the fact that another person has gained more. People in leadership often resent others achieving something significant, fearing a change in the equilibrium of power.
If you experience success, those in your field who have similar aspirations but who are still struggling will naturally feel envious. We should be reasonably tolerant of this because if the tables were reversed, we would probably feel the same. Some people are born with better looks, more athletic skill, an unusually vivid imagination, or an open and generous nature. Envy will follow them wherever they go. A successful woman inflicts feelings of inferiority in both women and men, which leads to envy and hostility, not admiration.
If you envy people with greater fame and success, remind yourself that such fame and success comes with a lot of hostility and envy. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “ Look at those who are beneath you and do not look at those who are above you, for it is more suitable that you should not consider as less the blessing of Allah.”
A blessing is something that God bestows. Envy, then, is the wish that a person should lose what God has given them. It is tantamount to saying that God was wrong to do so because I deserve it more.
Imam Mawlud prescribes two cures for envy. The first is to consciously oppose one’s caprice. This can be done by doing something that will benefit the person who is envied. The second cure is to know with certainty that envy only brings harm to oneself.