The dialectic between vices and virtues is not something that was invented by Bishop Barron in his series of lectures “Seven Deadly Sins; Seven Lively Virtues”, but is embedded in the human condition. We swing - sometimes quite wildly - from one side of this dialectic to the other. It is not uncommon for us to see images of ourselves on both sides of the vice/virtue coin as we flip from being proud to being humble, or as we flip from envy to admiration.
Bishop Barron focuses on admiration as the great antidote to envy, and his point is well made. To combat envy there is a need to reverse one’s thinking about the good fortune of others. Rather than seeing honor, wealth, success, etc., as zero sum games, admiration allows us to see the good in the victories of others.
Yet, it is possible to defeat envy not by focusing on its antidote, but by looking at its opposite. If envy is the jealousy felt towards others who have great things happen to them, then its opposite is the empathy felt towards others who have terrible things happen to them. Empathy, similar to but different from sympathy, is literally “in feeling” in Greek. It refers to our entering into the feelings of another in order to experience what they experience.
If empathy is a virtue, and it seems to have all of the necessary characteristics of a virtue, then it is something that can be practiced and strengthened. There is nothing extemporaneous about this or any other virtue - sure, we might stumble upon empathy like a blind squirrel stumbling upon a nut, but to grow in virtue takes focused practice.
While all virtues are worthy of our attention, maybe empathy is the best place to begin the journey away from vice and towards virtue. The characteristics of empathy make it the perfect virtue-on-training-wheels because it effortlessly taps into our innate desire to comfort those in need, and yet can also grow into the hammer that helps us to smash the nasty chains of envy.
The more we grow in our sense of empathy for those who struggle in life, the more that empathy becomes a part of who we are - the more it becomes a “good habit”, and that is literally the definition of a virtue. The stronger our empathy towards those who are experiencing difficulties, the more likely we will be able to feel empathy for those who are having a run of good luck.
To be able to “in feel” the joy of someone who just won a major award, who just received a promotion and a raise, or who just achieved something worthy of admiration is an important move away from envy. Yet, the final goal of empathy is the ability to “in feel” that joy when it is at our expense, when it literally is a zero sum game. The ability to not just “grin and bear it” but to honestly empathize with a person who got what we wanted - that is the true measure of the victory of virtue over vice.
This is a difficult task, and some might say that it is an impossible one. How can I empathize with my neighbor whose house was untouched by a tornado when my house is now in rubble? How can I empathize with my coworker whose spouse was brought back to life by paramedics when my spouse died of a heart attack? How can I empathize with the parents of the child who received the scholarship that my child worked so hard for and now won’t be able to attend college?
These and all other situations of great importance in our lives need to be placed against the background of our Faith. Maybe I attached too much worth to material things and the loss of my house is a wake-up call. Maybe my spouse is now in Heaven and is able to help me and my family in a much more powerful way. Maybe my child will find a better calling than college, and maybe as a result will find the perfect spouse and raise a wonderful family. And, maybe, just maybe, empathy when tied to a larger vision of reality can open our eyes to the absurdity, the pettiness, and the self-destructive nature of envy.