I am familiar with Envy—you might even say that Envy is a friend of mine. It’s not that I want to envy, it’s just that I often do. I don’t want to be friends, but we have spent so much time together over the years that it seems Envy has its own comfortable chair in the living room of my heart. Over the last little while, however, Envy has been somewhat uncomfortable in my heart. It seems as though my developing relationship with Pity keeps Envy from coming around so often.
For most of my life I have been a comparatively good boy. This may surprise some. Those of you who know about my rather rough childhood and adolescence may wonder: “can anything good come out of foster care?” I have, by God’s grace, largely been a coward. I have looked at all of the evil and wonderfully enticing prodigalities that dangled before me with so many promises of delight, power, or intimacy, and I just couldn’t get up the guts to risk the evident pain that was often the price for such indulgences. I liked being safe, even if it was boring. But that didn’t keep me from envying those who went for the gusto.
Self Righteousness and Envy are buddies. I didn’t drink or do drugs—I was too intelligent, I saw were they led. Yet those who indulged seemed to be cool, seemed to have so many friends, and I so often felt left out. Even in my group, the religious kids, the celebrities were the ones who returned from the prodigal life, the ones with the I-was-trapped-in-the-party-scene testimony. I was so envious that I sometimes construed the one time I really got high as a life of debauchery just so I would have a good testimony.
Perhaps as a response to this envy, I began more and more to feel anger toward those who couldn’t just say no: “sure it’s tough, but I did it, so you can too.” Stories of death by overdose or multiple abortions or suicide following yet another failed intimate relationship evoked no pity in me, just a cold confirmation that the wage of sin is death and a confirmation that I had been right in not taking such paths. I was angry with those who fell away from the faithful: they were now the cowards, they couldn’t hack righteousness, they succumbed—those idiots!
Of course, these thoughts were always mixed with other thoughts. They were mixed with a sense of fear that I too might succumb. If Pastor X, whom I really thought was a man of God, ran off with the secretary, I too might someday meet my nemesis and I too would fair just a badly. Anger was a coping device. Somehow as long as I was angry at the failures of others, I felt safe.
I was mostly unaware of the dynamic of self-righteous envy at work in me until about two years after I became Orthodox. One of my very best friends, a deacon and our head chanter, began suffering from gout. He was a salesman by trade, and in order to keep emotionally “up” (to make enough sales to support his wife and four small children) because of the pain caused by the gout, he began abusing prescription pain drugs. With the abuse came a mental breakdown that eventually led to his abandoning his family and soon death by overdose. I was angry with him beyond words.
Early on, the bishop met with the other clergy in the parish to discuss how we might best reach out to our prodigal deacon and his family. In this conversation I expressed how angry I was with him. The bishop’s response shocked me. I expected him to understand my anger and try to comfort me (It seems self-righteous envy is really all about me, even in the face of the terrible suffering of others). Instead of comforting words, His Grace said (and here I paraphrase), “How dare you be angry! Your friend needs your love and prayers now more than ever.” The shock was like a slap in my face. His words have become for me over the last twelve years a kind of criterion by which I have come to judge my inner life: “how dare you be angry.”
Slowly I have begun to look at sin and righteousness differently. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that I have come to look at sin and righteousness much less. Instead, I have begun more and more to look at human pain. People hurt. They hurt themselves and they hurt others. Some try to cope with their pain through sin (which leads most obviously to death), others through self righteousness (leading to alienation, a kind of hell on earth), but few find their way clear to the Father’s love. Few find their way to the light yoke of Christ: the burden of bearing one another’s burdens, not your own.
Righteousness and sin have not gone away. I just don’t relate to myself, my friends or God in those terms so much anymore. Instead, I try to let my heart be filled with the pain of those around me (bearing their burden). I believe this is called pity. I am not very good at this, so I can’t say were this will lead, but so far my experience has two distinct features. First, pity makes me pray. When I feel the pain of others, it hurts, sometimes a lot. All I can do with the pain is take it to God—offer it to God with the words repeated over and over again, “Lord have mercy.” The second thing is that I think about myself much less, whether I am right or wrong, sinning or not. And the funny thing is that I also don’t think very much about the rightness or wrongness of the person whom I pity. I just feel some of his pain, I carry a little of his burden; I say, Lord have mercy, and somehow God has mercy.