© Marie Notcheva
When I was in my early twenties, I worked as a secretary for an international business association in Bulgaria. One of my superiors, a businessman (who later became the Bulgarian ambassador to Russia), explained something to me about how he saw his own culture’s mentality toward success:
“Marie, you have to understand how we think here. It’s not enough for me to be doing well. YOU have to be doing badly. If you aren’t doing badly, I can’t feel good about my relative success.”
As I am not a naturally jealous person, this was a completely foreign (and repulsive) concept to me. I still don’t understand it, or where it comes from. The natural instinct, I would think, would be a sense of genuine gladness for a friend who aspires to obtain something good; attains it; and enjoys it. Ambivalence towards strangers, celebrities, or one with whom we share nothing in common is one thing; and people rarely seem consumed with bitterness or envy when (rich) celebrities get richer. Logically, when we care about someone, shouldn’t their joy become our joy? That is how I’ve always experienced it.
‘Schadenfreude’ is Not Just a Word in Germany
The German word schadenfreude is often used in English to express the pleasure derived from seeing misery in others. This is beyond simple jealousy; it is wanting to see someone set up – to fall down. Bono, lead singer from the Irish band U2, puts it this way:
“In Ireland people have an interesting attitude to success; they look down on it. In America, you look up at . . . the mansion on the hill and say, “One day . . . that could be me.” In Ireland, they look up at the mansion on the hill and go, “One day I’m gonna get that bastard.”
But where does this attitude come from? One theory points to socialism as fostering an attitude of jealousy. Political analyst Mona Charen, writing about social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, said:
“…once governments undertake to equalize things, people begin to believe that success is more a matter of luck than of hard work. A 2005 study of 29 countries found that where taxes are high and wealth is redistributed through social programs, people are much more likely to believe that success is a result of luck.”
Economics could be a factor (at least in making “schadenfreude” more openly expressed), and perhaps that is why this mentality seems more overt in formerly-socialist societies, like the Balkans. Jealousy is what drives mothers of high school students taking SAT exams to gossip and back-biting – feeling superior when their child’s scores are higher; resentful when the neighbor’s child did better. While competition certainly exists to unhealthy levels here in the United States, the default mode is more to be genuinely glad for your neighbors’ kids – if they even cross our minds at all.
What is truly confounding to me is how this attitude can prevail when there is no material benefit at stake whatsoever. Recently, I was talking with a Christian college student from a Balkan country, who is quite a talented writer. He had stopped writing because some of his friends thought it was presumptuous of him – “Only Jesus is perfect” (and therefore presumably the only One with the prerogative to write a book). “It looks like I want to get famous in people’s eyes,” he said. “It’s like opening a new business…everyone around you wishes for the business to fail. We have a selfish culture. We’re not skeptics, but cynics.”
The Biblical Response
I had also been on the receiving end of jealousy (from some women in my church) when my first book was published, but nothing like this kind of direct criticism. This made me truly sad, as friends should be the ones always rooting for you to succeed; encouraging when you are discouraged; and building up – not tearing down. Literally nothing gives me more happiness than seeing a loved one succeed – it actually feels better knowing they are receiving a blessing than receiving it myself.
Isn’t this why we have an innate desire to help people? There is nothing in it for us. Self-interest is the opposite of love. This should be especially true among the family of believers, who are called to encourage one another to use their individual gifts to the glory of God.
The root of this is deep in human nature, and is not confined by culture. Christian author Jerry Bridges writes:
“Envy is the painful and oftentimes resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else. Sometimes we want that same advantage, leading to the further sin of covetousness. And sometimes we just resent the other person having something we don’t have. But we don’t just envy people in general. Usually, there are two conditions that tempt us to envy. First we tend to envy those with whom we most closely identify. Second, we tend to envy in them the areas we value most.”
This gets to the heart of the matter….call it envy, jealousy, ‘schadenfreude’ – while culture, economics and circumstances may bring this unloving attitude to the fore-front, it is something that lies at the bottom of every heart. Comparison lies at the root of envy. Whether one gives in to it is a choice. The antidote? Love. Putting the interests of others before your own (Philippians 2:4) means making a conscious effort to empathize – putting yourself in another person’s place – and coming to value him or her for who they are.
To “put off” envy, “put on” contentment. You’re doing well? Great! Give thanks to God. Stop and ask yourself, how on earth do you stand to benefit if your neighbor is doing badly? That doesn’t even make sense. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
To put off a “critical spirit”, put on “not easily provoked”. Being critical of others (whether their success or failure) tends to go hand in hand with envy. There is something in them, or that they have, that drives a resentful soul to criticism. A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11
There is simply no room for jealousy in friendship – whether of someone using her gifts; obtaining a goal after working hard; or receiving an unexpected blessing. True caring means rejoicing with those who rejoice; and weeping with those who weep.