Our mothers and bosses spent their careers intent on proving themselves the equals of men. The focus of their comparison on issues of freedom, autonomy, agency, and compensation was across the gender line. The force of shared vision bound thousands upon thousands of them together in a movement of solidarity.
Whither to compare?
As a result of their efforts, for us, only one generation their junior, the question of the equality of the sexes is settled. We still have a ways to go with questions like pay equity and ordination. But, largely, we have ceased comparing ourselves to men.
Our mothers have shown that biology is not necessarily destiny. Yet, most of us are by choice, habit, or lack of imagination, thinking of things our boyfriends, husbands, and male coworkers are not. We work side by side, and day by day with the men of our culture. But because of either the tick-tock of our biological clocks, or the ache of our nursing breasts, we are freshly aware that we have only one another to compare ourselves to.
Aristotle says envy grows naturally in relationships between equals. So, it is both ironic and strangely predictable that this ancient and ugly sin would be found creeping around among the heiresses of the feminist movement.
Envy has risen up from the settled dust of the sexual revolution. The backbiting murmurs, the cursing evil eye, and the rotten green complexion can be heard, felt, seen between us. I have found lurking in myself, and in all too many of my friends, envious feelings as I watch the lives of other women unfolding.
Divided by what cannot be
The great divide between us is marriage and children. My single friends and I seem to be spending far too much time gazing wistfully, and wishfully at our friends’ wedding bands and pregnant bellies. My married friends pine for the days of free Friday nights and slimmer waistlines. Henry Fairlie, in his book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, writes, “The envious are filled from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, with a bitter regret for what they cannot have or be.”
The disease: regrets and resentments
We singletons find ourselves regretting the strangest things, like the loss of a boyfriend or husband who treated us miserably. Somehow the comparative drive of envy leads us to believe that any man is better than no man at all. On our nights home alone we find the tears of emptiness welling up inside of us. The loneliness, coupled with our imaginings of the blissful family life of our mother-friends is too much to take. At our worst, we gossip among ourselves about the ill-behaved children or smugness of the marrieds.
Married and mothering women look back with ache and longing at the life they deliberately opted out of. They overlook the love before them, yearning to throw off the responsibility of family for the unencumbered freedom of the single life. At their worst, they feed the sense that they are being deliberately excluded, ignored, left out of all the fun by their single friends.
Perhaps few of us are consumed with regret, but the telltale signs of envy —emptiness, anger, and resentment—are all too common. Despite all of the gifts which fill our lives, we torment ourselves over what we “cannot have or be.”
Remedies: the opposite of envy
Anglican priest William Stafford says in Disordered Loves: Healing the Seven Deadly Sins, “the best remedy for envy is cultivating thankfulness.” Now there’s a noble Lenten exercise: cultivate thankfulness. Where envy robs us of joy, thankfulness engenders it. Gratitude asks not “what am I missing?” but rather, “what do I have?” It opens us to the possibility of seeing the unique gifts and opportunities God offers us in this moment.
For the mothers among us, a shift to thankfulness might make you laugh and marvel at the sticky, gooey kiss of your ice-cream-covered three year old. Or let you embrace that moment of quiet at the end of the day when the last story has been read and the lights are turned out.
Single women might, in thankfulness, become aware of the presence of God in the silence of their homes. Or avail themselves of the opportunities for travel, and late night conversation which their independence offers.
Gratitude allows us to focus our attention on what is rich and full in our own lives, rather than envying the green grass of another’s. It might just bring us back to sisterhood and solidarity.