We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.
We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.
“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”
The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.
“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.
She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.
But it didn’t. Not really.
Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity.
I have met the most gifted people in the world who are involved in life overseas. Men and women who have left much of the familiar and entered into countries where they are guests, forging their way in territory that is unfamiliar from language to food choices. The list of characteristics of what it takes is long and impressive. Adaptability, perseverance, compassion, adventurous spirit, capable of ambiguity, linguistic ability, great sense of humor, empathy — the list goes on and on. But take a group of people, all with the same goal and similar characteristics, insert jealousy and envy and unity is no more.
Because envy is insidious in its ability to destroy relationships. It loves to disguise itself in well-meaning jargon and light humor. It snakes its way into conversation and behavior. It is called the green-eyed monster for a reason.
I’m a definer – that means I like to start with definitions. Definitions have a way of clarifying things for me. And so in the case of jealousy and envy it has helped me to note the similarities and differences; Jealousy at its simplest is fear of losing something I value; envy is wanting something that someone else has. They have no redemptive value – they are vices. I realize I am envious of those most similar to me. In the case above it was someone who was living in Cairo, same stage of life, a mom with kids, who communicated in Arabic far better than I did.
There is nothing quite like envy that renders me ineffective. I am paralyzed on the outside while my insides have a monologue with God. A monologue that boils down to two questions:
Why not me?
There are no simple answers but I’ve found a few things help:
1. Honesty and admission of sin. This is my first step in fighting this ongoing battle of envy. Honesty. For if I cannot be honest, this vice will rot my soul and slowly but steadily infect my body.
2. Confessing the sin. It is not enough to just admit my envy. I have to take this next step – confess this to the God who knows me and sees me raw, loving me anyway.
3. Recognize the ‘why’. In the case of language learning the ‘why’ was easy. I love talking and I wanted to talk with ease and fluency. I didn’t want to stumble over my words. The ‘why’ was reasonable and commendable. The ‘why’ is not the sin, the envy resulting from the ‘why’ is the sin. Recognizing the ‘why’ is crucial in my journey from envy to peace.
4. Thank God for the person. I hate this one, but it works. Because in the course of giving thanks I am reminded that the person is loved by God, gifted by God for His purposes. As I thank God, I am ever so slowly able to accept and even rejoice at the ability or gifts of another. Rejoice that we are part of God’s redemptive plan, a plan far greater than any of us know.
5. Pray for acceptance of who I am and how I am gifted, or not. So much of my envy comes from insecurity and inability to accept who I am, how I’m wired, my strengths and my weaknesses. As I work through accepting how God made me, the circumstances where he has placed me, envy is squashed. I learn more about trust and faith.
Would that envy could be erased once and for all, the answer an easy formula. At times I believe I will never be free of this vice, that it is so much a part of my journey in this broken world that I will struggle until I am face to face with the God who made me.
So I raise my prayer to the Master Designer who knit me together, who knows my comings and my goings, knows where I sit and where I stand. A God who knows my thoughts before they are voiced, knows when I am prone to envy, to insecurity. I raise my prayer and ask for a heart free of envy and full of peace, giving life to the body and health to the soul.
A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30
Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas? It’s a hard but important question!
*name has been changed!
Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard