A story is told of a Buddhist monk who wouldn’t drift from his meditation. The Mephistophelean figure who was disturbing him tried every trick in the book. He threatened him with terrible death and tried to cajole him by promising him riches but this monk wouldn’t move an inch. The devil then had a clever idea. He told the monk his brother had just found a treasure that would make him both rich and famous. The monk got dejected and even started breaking things. Of course, this is sibling rivalry on steroids. But we all find ourselves in such a situations from time to time, at least I do. Good things happen to others and we wish it had happened to us. It’s a good thing for us to want good things for ourselves, but there’s a level at which wanting what’s others is unhealthy.
The tenth commandment is a bulwark against this human tendency. There’s something within us that makes specific modes of behavior attractive to us. We admire kindness to sadism. We generally prefer truth to lies. There’s a mode of being we would want to embody. We admire those we see emulating such patterns of behavior. There’s nothing wrong with trying to model someone seen as responsible and brave. Our quest to be like others becomes problematic if we want to have what they have without putting in the work. It’s even worse if we want to bring those who possess what we deem to be ideals to our level.
Life is not fair. There are things others have that is not as a result of any hard work on their part. They got lucky. This can be said about any of us; however, when we think of this, we often think about wealth. But such advantages are not limited to wealth. Some of us are in good health, others have special talents, whilst others don’t get agitated- they are naturally calm. Having said this, I would want to add that inequality is a real problem and we need to address it if we want to preserve social cohesion. However, jealousy should be other people’s problem. We shouldn’t fall victims to the worse parts of our nature. We should discern when we are fighting injustice and when we are entertaining our jealous tendencies.
In one of Taleb’s books, which I guess is Skin in the Game, he says that most people don’t have problems with people who have got rich through genuine means. He personally said he respected Bill Gates and the difference his software has made in the world, although he doesn’t like Gate’s personality. What people detest are rent-seekers; those who become rich by doing nothing productive. Like a politician who becomes rich by taking bribes. According to Taleb, it’s these kinds of people that the public detest. Why? Because you feel it so wrong deep in your soul. It’s obvious there’s nothing special about this person. They don’t do any work, but by some pull they have so many things that you would also want to have. But this should be a problem that others should deal with, not us, my dear reader. In the final analysis, covetousness is unproductive.
Now to the last commandment itself. Exodus 20:17.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
I was reading the Bible a few days ago, and I realized that it’s one of the commandments I hardly think about. Though some parts are anachronistic, its substance doesn’t change much. It seems like an after thought in comparison with the rest of the ten commandments. For those who are interested you can find the earliest version of the ten in Exodus 20. It dawned on me that covetousness was the source of many wrongs. It reminded me of the Buddhist idea, though not limited to Buddhism, that all suffering comes from our desires. Of course, not all desires are covetous, and taking the idea of ignoring desires to the extreme will be ridiculous. A man has to eat. A man needs friends. A man has ambitions. If you don’t satisfy your desires you will die. However it is true that most of our suffering comes from those things we wish for. It is therefore necessary for us to have a conversation with ourselves. We need to ask ourselves why we think we need the things we need. And ask ourselves again.
The lies we tell ourselves. That the rich have big problems.
There’s also this idea that those who seem to be models to us also have their problems. It is a truism since the human condition is fraught with desires and eternal dissatisfaction. However, it is not necessary for us to tell ourselves these stories for us to feel good about ourselves. Someone can be wealthy and live a happy life. God bless her! Power to her! We can celebrate with those whom fortune smiles on. It takes nothing from us. In the planned time of the Lord, our spring will overflow.
The message I want to remind us all of is this- don’t be envious of others. I use remind because this isn’t the first time you have heard it. We prompt ourselves all the time when we realize our jealousy is becoming unhealthy. We should remember that in the long run we get what we deserve. So stay steady.
Thank you for reading.