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Keeping up with the Joneses Made Me Miserable


James Vaughn CC

Maria Garabis Davis - published on 11/10/15

Envy and greed crept into this writer's life and robbed her of her peace and happiness

When I was newly 18, I convinced my parents to let me go on a summer mission trip. So shortly after I graduated from high school, I filled a duffle bag with T-shirts and long skirts (a requirement of the program) and boarded a plane for Guatemala City.  It was a short stay—not for the entire summer, but the impact it had on a young, wide-eyed girl was profound. The dirt huts, the filth, the hunger and the deformities were a stark contrast to my suburban life.

Even more surpassingly strange: I heard laughter everywhere I went. Despite the impoverished living conditions, there were so many smiles; there was so much peace. I returned to my modest home (three bedrooms for 11 people) and thanked my parents for raising me in a mansion.

This experience continued to shape my decisions as I grew older. In college I ran a summer service program in the Appalachian Mountains that assisted families in the region with their food and housing needs.  In law school I chose internships that aided immigrants seeking asylum and secured safe housing for impoverished foster children. I was enthusiastic, passionate and devoted to my mission to maintain a detachment from worldly things and feed my desire to serve the poor.

As recently as a decade ago I still lived by this principle. Sitting with my fiancé on the front stoop of his apartment on a warm fall day, we giddily made plans for our future life.  I remember him saying that he wouldn’t be able to give me a mansion, fancy trips or designer clothes, but we would be together and have a good and simple life. I thought it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard.

Yet time passed, and somewhere along the way I got caught up in the world of “things.” I progressed in my career, had children, bought houses and cars and began to measure my worth against those around me. Everyone became my competition, and they all had more than I had. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I acquired this gnawing sense of jealousy, a whisper in my head nagging, “Look at what they have! How great they have it!”

These thoughts quickly began to pervert the way I viewed my life and all God had given me. I became angry that I wasn’t making more money, or that my husband didn’t have a better job. I started to obsess over the Facebook profiles of “friends,” comparing their seemingly perfect lives to my own, and feeling weirdly cheated. “I want that,” I’d think. “Why won’t God give it to me?”

Unsurprisingly, I became unhappy, then restless, and then more fixated on wanting.

This is what envy does.  It robs you of your peace, distances you from God and distorts your view of the blessings you have.

Sin is poison in life.  But we cannot battle what we refuse to acknowledge; we are incapable of combating sin until we recognize it for what it is, and then reckon with it.

It took me a while to realize that the source of my unhappiness was rooted in my disobedience to one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house [or his] wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”  (Exodus 20:17).

Pope Francis has poignantly said, “Jealousy is an outgrowth of not realizing who you are and what you possess. It’s born of fear that someone has a better life than yours, even though the people you envy are not without their own insecurities, pains and unrequited dreams and hopes. Focus on your accomplishments, not your failures. Count your blessings. Celebrate the life you’ve been given.”

Take a look around, and you know he’s right, and the age-old adage is true: money doesn’t buy happiness. If it did, why would divorce, suicide and addiction plague the rich and famous?

If it did, how could I witness such joy amid Guatemala’s extreme poverty?

So how do we reverse habitual sin? For me it meant picking up the tools given to me by my parents, in my youth. “How do we pray?” my mother would say. “We first thank God for all the things he has provided us.”

So, like a child, I began to give thanks. I started with the little things and as I persisted, my list became longer:

  • Thank you, Father, for my car, my home and for letting me provide for my family.
  • Thank you, Father, for my healthy children and husband.
  • Thank you Father, for the gift of my life.

Gratitude brought real humility as I realized God’s generous action in my life; generosity that was freely given, and that I had come to think of as my just due, because I am sinful.

Ridding your life of a bad habit that’s rooted in sin is a process. But I’m doing it. When distracted by the wealth around me, I’m learning to redirect my thoughts in the direction of gratitude—to focus on the haves, not the haven’ts, and acquire a childlike fascination with even the small blessings in my life. What I’ve learned is simple and true: God cannot be outdone in his generosity.

FaithPope FrancisPracticing Mercy
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