Trying to name the seven deadly sins is like trying to name Santa’s reindeer—by the time you’ve listed 5, you forget which ones you started with, and can’t remember what you’ve left out, and then wonder why there has to be so many of essentially the same thing anyway. So: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. I think. But those seven seem excessive: aren’t lust, gluttony, greed, and envy all about wanting what you can’t have, or wanting more than you deserve? And sloth involves wanting too, although in that case it’s a desire for comfort without working for it the way others have to. And anger is often prompted by being frustrated in all of those desires, which tends only to fuel them more rather than satisfy them (and, no, leaving lust out wasn’t accidental).
Yet isn’t pride at the root of all of them? either overweening pride, where you believe that you deserve something, anything, everything as much, if not more, than others; or maybe the pride that wars with shame, where you suspect that perhaps you’re not getting what you want because you secretly don’t deserve it, but you can’t muster the humility or grace to keep yourself from being angry that you don’t have it anyway, which only makes you more angry with yourself.
One thing worth noticing here—in this conception of sin, it’s not specific actions or behaviors or results that are (at least not directly) the problem; rather, you’ve fallen from grace when whatever you’re doing is motivated not by virtue—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility—but by vicious, self-absorbed desire.
All of which is enormously helpful in understanding pre-twentieth century western art and literature, but, for someone like me, protestant by birth, more pagan by disposition, not easy to apply in real life. Though now that I come to think of it, I bet that one reason artists and writers represented the conflict of vice and virtue to the point of obsessiveness for hundreds of years is that the move from theory to practice is tricky for all but the most saintly among us.
I think my greatest sins, or at least the ones that I’m consciously troubled by, are anger and envy—and we can’t have those without pride, so throw that in too. The anger…that one I’ll save for another time, or you can just find me on social media where I air many of my grievances (but not all, because there are so, so many!) with regularity and fulsome detail.
As for envy…envy and jealousy have hounded me for as long as I can remember. Things I have been envious about in my life: being allowed to wear jeans (when I was 6); being able to run fast or hang on better (because I was never as fast or strong as the others); being a normal size and shape for our age (and not too big in the wrong places too early); not having to wear glasses; getting 10++ on our social studies maps (what kind of teacher even pits children against one another on the basis of 10+ and 10++??); being popular with the other girls; being liked by the boys; being asked to dance; being more outgoing; being more ambitious, or focused, or disciplined; singing, writing, dancing better and more; sacrificing more for art; knowing exactly what to do and what to be when you grow up; being leaner; being more relaxed; making more money; just being better.
Or, in other words: why don’t I have what they have? why do they get what I want? are they more popular, relaxed, wealthy, slim, loved because they’re better than me, or because I’m being unfairly overlooked (because maybe they really are better than me)? Why do success, money, love, health, easy relationships, good vision, nicely-aligned knees, natural talent, expensively-bought opportunity—why does all of what I might like or need come so much more easily to them than to me?
These are deeply neurotic questions, and, obviously, very self-absorbed ones—and knowing that doesn’t make anything better, because now I’m not just envious, I’m greedy, angry, and proud. (Not to mention frequently fatigued by the workings of my own willful mind, which tends to makes me slothful).
Our contemporary dogma of self-improvement and self-love dictates that we mustn’t be so hard on ourselves; that we should, instead, practice self-compassion and focus on gratitude for everything we do have. This advice is what we call problematic. I confess that injunctions about relaxation/forgivenness/gratitude administered by people who get to make a living being relaxed, forgiving, and grateful (yoga and tai-chi instructors, Oprah) make me rather livid. If it were that easy for me—not you, enlightened one, but me—to watch my anxiety and envy float by like clouds in the sky, or leaves in the current, don’t you think I would have established the habit long, long ago, and would now also be teaching yoga and mindfulness instead of writing fretfully about the jealous restlessness which has fueled too much of my career up to this point??
(So add that to the list: I also envy people who can practice mindfulness).
We’re advised to practice gratitude in the form of giving ourselves credit for what we have achieved—material success, status, milestones of “healthy adult development.” Yeah, that doesn’t work. I find it very hard not to make invidious comparisons. Maybe I do have many wonderful qualities, maybe my life is full of wonderful things, including my own hard-won accomplishments—but isn’t there a danger in that kind of appreciation, where what makes it possible for me to be appreciative is an awareness that I have things that many other people don’t? Even worse is when I have looked at people I’m jealous of, and consoled myself that while I might not have their money, success, or romantic happiness, I’ve also escaped the very things—loss, debt, disappointment, foibles of looks or personality—that might make them unhappily envy others.
That is, I don’t need to be envious, because look how enviable I am!
Well, that’s no good. No good at all. That kind of gratitude is just a disguise for seemingly-intractable pride, with the additional temptation of schadenfreude. A recipe for being insufferable, to myself, if not to others.
(Also, incidentally, this mindset is one of the major pitfalls and distractions of being a subject within neoliberal, capitalist ideology. But let’s save that topic for another day.)
Something I have noticed in recent years, which might yet save me: as I’ve gotten older, and as the world keeps getting stupider and more imperiled in so many troubling ways, while others make valiant, hopeful struggles to save it in others—a lot of the stuff that used to matter so much as motivation for both envy and ambition…just doesn’t, now. I try very hard not to think too much about the degree of jeopardy we’re in—never mind as individuals, as a whole species—but insofar as that menace is always lurking in our peripheral vision, it does provide a bit of perspective. As does age, and the inevitability of death. Anything could happen—tomorrow, next year, or in the next 10 seconds—and fretting about professional and material status is a tremendous waste of time that we just don’t have. And there’s so much randomness to our lives—when you’re younger, everything seems so high stakes, and your success and failure seems to hinge entirely on you—how hard you work, how good, or pretty, or thin, or interesting, or ambitious, or whatever you single-handedly make yourself. But with enough experiences to form a more representative sample, you can see that while you can—and ought—to make an effort, to take responsibility, to be active on your own behalf, what you can actually control is a mere drop in the bucket compared to all the stuff that you can’t. Genes. The way your circumstances shape your personality, intellect, and looks before you’re even capable of neurotic awareness of such things. Class. Sex. Race. The luck of the draw of what country and decade you’re born in. The randomness is incalculable.
And for that very, overwhelming, humbling reason, the randomness has become, oddly, very comforting. I’ve started to become much better at accepting that I’m who and where I am just…because, and, while I could make myself quite crazy (and have done) trying to influence one tiny portion of my otherwise implacable fate, I’m capable of moments of contentment when I’m able to just enjoy the ride. Envy, pride—and all the greed, gluttony, and anger that goes with them—bother me much less (I do, however, have a newfound appreciation for sloth, and lust, which have been given an unfairly-bad rap). I’m a long, long way from being enlightened, but being less envious at least makes me feel lighter, and perhaps makes the practice of virtue a little bit easier.
There. That’s something to feel grateful for.