We’re having family Thanksgiving on Friday this year, which would have been unthinkable when I was a kid, like having church on Monday instead of Sunday. It just wasn’t done. But Spencer is at the firehouse this Thursday, so we moved the family dinner to Friday, even though it says in the Bible that Thanksgiving should be held on Thursday. At least that’s what my Aunt Doris always told us, and she was always reading the Bible and quoting from it, so I’m inclined to believe her, even though I haven’t seen that verse myself.
We would go to her house in Vincennes every Thanksgiving when I was little. It was always assumed, but never discussed. That’s just where we went. My Aunt Doris used Thanksgiving as a lever for home improvements. Her husband Pete never wanted to leave home, even for a day, so would announce in early November that they would be hosting Thanksgiving, and my Aunt Doris would say, “You expect me to have everyone over with this ratty old carpet. We need new carpet before I let anyone in this house.” The year I most remember was the year she got new carpet, green shag carpet, and not just new carpet, but an entire kitchen remodel—dark Mediterranean-style cabinets with orange countertops and harvest gold appliances, the epitome of good taste in 1972. But I remember the year with the new carpet best, because Aunt Doris was careful to point it out as we entered her home.
“Take your shoes off,” she told us. “I don’t want my new carpet to get dirty. Did I mention it’s new?” Shoes off in the house? That was unheard of in my family, some of whom slept in their shoes, after a house fire in the early 50s, which found them standing in the snow in their bare feet. My great uncle Dennis lost two toes to frostbite, and here was Aunt Doris, making us remove our shoes, which we did but only because it was warm outside. In the end it didn’t matter. Her carpet was still ruined, when my brother David, then 10 years old, was carrying a bowl of raisin sauce into the house in his stocking feet and tripped over a throw rug my Aunt Doris had placed on her new carpet, and up in the air went the raisin sauce and came down on her new shag carpet. It looked like an explosion, like a crime scene, raisin sauce splattered everywhere.
I was so happy when that happened. The Sunday before, Father McLaughlin had urged us to find something for which to be grateful and seeing that raisin sauce rain down on my aunt’s new shag carpet filled me with joy. My mother had wanted new carpet for years, but we couldn’t afford it, and I could tell she was a little jealous of Aunt Doris and her new carpet, but was too sweet to say so. I wonder now if it was intentional. Why would you ask a ten-year-old boy to carry a pot of raisin sauce the size of a bushel basket across shag carpet? Why would you do that unless you wanted a disaster? My mother didn’t even scold my brother. He started to cry and she hugged him and said, “That’s okay, David. It’s just carpet. No one died.” Even though my Aunt Doris looked like she wanted to die.
But I felt oddly happy, because the hardest thing in life is not to feel a little bit happy when something unpleasant happens to someone you envy. It is one of our less noble qualities, our happiness at the problems of others. This happiness is rooted in envy, which itself is rooted in ingratitude, a failure to appreciate what we have, a lingering, festering belief that we deserve more or better. I know about this because envy is a lifelong struggle for me. I may not be an expert in Greek or Hebrew or ancient Palestine, but there are few people as well-versed in envy as me, so I hope you will listen to what I tell you today. I speak as an expert.
These past several weeks we’ve been talking about depression and the habits we can cultivate to elevate and enrich our lives. Once again, I’ll say the first step in combatting depression is to see your doctor in order to address the biological causes of depression. While on medication, your life will lack the numbing valleys you once experienced, but it will also lack the exhilarating highs. Those moments require the cultivation of certain habits. We’ve spoken about the importance of facing reality, of encouraging the habit of optimism, and developing and nurturing friendships. Today, I want to talk about the power of gratitude, of being grateful for our lives, so we do not waste our lives in jealousy and envy. Because it is impossible to be simultaneously envious and grateful, for the moment we envy someone, we think only of what we don’t have, instead of what we do have, which leads always to disappointment and depression and never satisfaction and joy.
Joan and I lived in rental homes and parsonages for the first 14 years of our married life. They weren’t houses we would otherwise choose to live in, but that’s the way it was back in the Dark Ages. You slept in any cave you could find. When we could finally afford our own home, the house we live in now, we were so excited. Our first night there, we walked through the rooms pinching ourselves, “Can you believe this is our home?” It was mostly empty rooms, since we didn’t have much furniture, but they were our empty rooms.
The next weekend, some friends invited us to their new home for dinner, and off we went. It was a big, gorgeous house. I’d see something and think to myself how nice it would be to have what they had—granite countertops, custom woodwork, a finished basement, a bigger garage, more rooms. The longer we were there, the shabbier our house felt to me. Just the week before I thought our home was the loveliest home ever, and a week later I was wanting more. Driving home, I told Joan I wanted to make some improvements to our home. She said, “Our house is fine. What do you want?”
I knew exactly what I wanted, and I told her, “Green shag carpet.”
And she said no, and that’s how we ended up with hardwood floors.
But all these years later, I still remember that envy and its effect on me, how it caused me to look askance at something I had cherished just one week before. That is what envy does. It causes us to despise what we once valued.
Envy causes us to devalue our relationships, when we wish we had someone else’s spouse.
Envy causes us to devalue our possessions, when we wish we had someone else’s home or car or clothes.
Envy causes us to devalue our vocations, when we wish we had someone else’s job or career.
Envy causes us to devalue our abilities when we wish we had someone else’s talent.
Envy causes us to devalue our accomplishments when we wish we had someone else’s successes.
Envy causes us to devalue our bodies when we wish we had someone else’s looks or appearance.
Worst of all, because envy tells us what we are and what we have is not enough, envy robs us of gratitude and happiness.
This is why envy is the thief of joy. Envy whispers in our ears that there is not enough sun for everyone, so makes us see shadows where once we saw light.
Gratitude is impossible when we are comparing our lives to others, for we will always feel as if our life has fallen short.