Monday, 4 January 2016

12 March 1881 - 'Other People's Happiness, and Other People's Things' by James Mason

It is a shame, girls - yes, it is a great shame, that we should make ourselves miserable by envying other people's happiness and coveting other people's things. Of the envious and covetous no one has spoken respectfully since the world began, and if you would only reflect - which, at the giddy age of some of your highnesses, is perhaps hardly to e expected - you would be nothing but patterns of sweet content.

I have often thought of quoting to you the example of a man with whom it was a custom every evening before he retired to rest, to sit quietly for a time in his chair, endeavouring to discover whether he had done anything wrong during the day, even to the extent of coveting what was not his own, and, if he fancied he had, he did his best never to fall into the same error again. If that were your practice how good you would grow and how much more charming you would be. I, for one, would then pin my faith to you forever.

As it is, to speak but of one fault at a time, how envious you sometimes are of others' good looks. If women  were able to cast the evil eye, as it is said the gipsies do, the reign of beauty would soon be over, and only homely features would have a chance of existence. My dear, don't be ridiculous; you are good enough looking for me, and, if not the prettiest I ever saw, you are by a long way the most agreeable. Beauty, you know, is but skin-deep, and to be envious of another's loveliness is to be no more sensible than a child crying  for the moon.

It is just as wrong to be envious of affection. "Why," said a girl once, making a confession to me, "I was in love with Tom when Julia came along, and she actually did her best to win him away; not that she cared for him a bit, but she was envious of seeing me so happy." Could anything have been more shabby? But there is no end to the mean things that envy will do.

Envy has made a home for itself everywhere, and whether we live in peasants' huts or in kings' palaces, it is pretty sure to be at least our next-door-neighbour. The ignorant envy the educated, the poor the rich, the low the high, and the high the low. Only the other day I read of a girl, nobly born, envying much the happiness of those milkmaids who pass every morning over the dewy grass, sing sweetly all day, and sleep soundly at night, and who have the privilege of bestowing their affections as they please, and of wedding "those who are high in love though low in condition".

Success of any sort is sure to stir up envy. A girl, for example, has worked harder than her associates, and proved herself a better scholar; up jump immediately a crowd of ill-natured feelings excited by the honour she receives. She has, indeed, a noble spirit who can at such a moment deliver her congratulations without envy, and rejoice sincerely at the reward of the deserving. Life, my friends, is too short to spend any portion of it fretting at the success of others. Succeed for yourselves; that is by a long way better than indulging in a passion that can never do you or anybody else a single particle of good.

Covetousness is a companion vice to envy, and quite as wicked, quite as foolish. In the young it is not always so observable, your opportunities for indulging in it not being so numerous; but it is common enough for all that. If there were not many greedy girls there would not be so many avaricious women, and one's acquaintance is in a very limited circle if she cannot from personal observation furnish several who are far from models in this way. I know at least one girl so greedy that the deep sea is nothing to her - one who wishes everything that others have her own, and will stick at no craft or intrigue to obtain what she desires.

If either envy or covetousness ended in happiness it would be something, but both are enemies to happiness, like all other vices. The envious step-sister in the fairy story always in the long run came off worst, and so it will be to the end of the chapter in the real world. As we grow older these passions grow stronger; in fact there is a proverb which says that "covetousness is the last vice which dies." Once they take root, they never fail to wither the best natures; for neither generous thoughts, nor wholesome ambition, nor sincere love can exist in the same heart alongside of them.

On the whole they are the vices of little minds that have little to do. When one is occupied with work and engrossed with thought, she has no time and still less inclination either for envying other people's good fortune, or unlawfully desiring other people's possessions. Here we have perhaps the reason for envy and covetousness, especially envy, being much less common amongst men than amongst women; they have more to do. Be never idle! This is as good a rule for mental health as to take plenty of exercise is a sound law for the health of the body.

It is a great antidote to envy to think that things are not always what they seem. Indeed, most often after we have summed up the happiness or prosperity of other people, we find we have seriously miscalculated. We are like the woman who longed to get into a Court circle, which appeared to her the most desirable of all companies. At last she did, and "I wish," she wrote soon after, "I had never seen anything higher than the flowers in the field."

Another, who attracted envy enough in her day, has confessed to the same feeling. "How much," she says, "have I regretted that ever I was born even when I have been surrounded with all that could gratify the ambition of woman."

As for covetousness, the mere desire to have what our neighbour has, and so deprive her of the possession, should never be one of your failings. Happiness does not lie in possession, and to covet mere worldly goods - money or anything else - is but to make a treasure of a dust-heap. Let us all then cultivate content and be of one mind as to making the beautiful lines of the old poet our own:-

"My conscience is my crown;
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself,
My bless is in my breast."

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