Envy and The Red Pony

For Christmas I received a beautiful copy of John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. I had heard of it and knew nothing about it. I opened it tremulously as I detest reading narratives where the horse-hero is abused, lost, killed, or otherwise treated cruelly by the world – which is unfortunately not atypical for any horse that comes in contact with humankind.  Sure enough those parts were in the book; thankfully it is really a short story so it didn’t have time to bring me to tears.

Steinbeck is a brilliant author but this odd little tale didn’t really engage me. The part of the book that most captured my attention was a single paragraph. Early in the story our hero Jody has been given his pony Galiban and is now showing him off to his school chums. Steinbeck describes the moment in a way that struck a chord and raised a question that I hadn’t considered previously. Here is the quote:

“Before today Jody had been a boy, dressed in overalls and a blue shirt – quieter than most, even suspected of being a little cowardly. And now he was different. Out of a thousand centuries they drew the ancient admiration of the footman for the horseman. They knew instinctively that a man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot. They knew that Jody had miraculously been lifted out of equality with them, and had been placed over them.”

I confess I have reveled at times in the experience of drawing the admiration of people based on my relationship to my horse. I didn’t think twice about it until I read the above and recognized it as reveling in the envy that others might have for me. This is remarkably close to the envy we might have for another’s possession of a larger house, fancier car, higher position, and bigger salary. Not quite schadenfreude but close enough to make me squirm.

What place does envy have in my life (in our lives) and what action does it motivate in me? In our culture I have been witnessing what I interpret to be envy and greed quite frequently. It seems to me that envy is key to our western culture of incessant consumption. We, as a culture, are confused by the definition of needs versus wants and desires. We pursue the collection and acquisition of belongings almost as though they will inoculate us against mortality.  I am as guilty of this as anyone. I am, however, at a place in life where I tend to regard these possessions as adding more work and responsibility than bringing real happiness. A wise friend of mine reminds me occasionally of the difference between the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of happiness. The former is short-term; the latter may take longer to feel but is a gift that tends to last.

In 2013 I intend to focus more closely on the people and things in my life that bring me happiness and pay attention to the feelings of envy, want, and need and hopefully act with more social consciousness than I have in the past. I am blessed, and according to statistics readily available thanks to the internet, I am in a very tiny percentage of the world’s population that enjoys undue wealth and entitlement.

My wish for each of you is that you live consciously and with the happiness earned through the practice of gratitude and sharing. May 2013 bring you what you need, and then if it is right, also bring what you desire.