Envy and Gratitude

For as long as I remember, I—like many girls—have loved the Anne of Green Gables series. Some of my earliest memories involve falling asleep at night to the sound of Meagan Follows reading Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea; to this day, there are whole passages of those particular books embedded in my subconscious, in Follows’ melodious voice. I have always found much to identify with in Anne Shirley; like Anne, I was an impetuous, talkative, dreamy child who used big words and was once paid money to keep quiet for ten minutes. (I succeeded, by the way.) Like Anne, as an adult I struggle with keeping my temper and tending to take life through a rather melodramatic lens.

Even as a child, one of my favorite books in the series was also one of the less well-known: Anne’s House of Dreams, the fifth Anne book, which covers Anne’s first years of marriage to the swoon-worthy Gilbert Blythe. I’m not sure why, as a preteen, I found myself drawn to a book about new marriage—especially one that includes a heartbreaking subplot that still makes me cry every time I read it—but the love has persisted. Once I became a newlywed myself, and experienced, like Anne, the pangs of disappointed longing for motherhood, the book earned an even more special place in my heart.

One of the most interesting characters in Anne’s House of Dreams is Leslie Moore, the victim of a loveless marriage who is now left caring for her incapacitated husband in the wake of a traumatic brain injury. Leslie is complex and confusing, by turns sweet and sour; she becomes good friends with  Anne, but has a difficult time not being jealous of Anne’s newlywed bliss. Halfway through the book, after Anne suffers a tragedy herself, Leslie opens up about her conflicted feelings. Describing the first time she saw Anne driving into town with her new husband, Leslie says:

“I hated you in that very moment, Anne . . . it was because you looked so happy. Oh, you’ll agree with me now that I am a hateful beast—to hate another woman just because she was happy,—and when her happiness didn’t take anything from me!”

I must admit: every time I read about Leslie’s passionate jealousy, I feel something of a kinship. Envy has always been my besetting sin. I can vividly remember being fifteen years old, lying on my bed, my soul harrowed up with frustration over some now-forgotten inequality. I’ve always been prone to jealousy, coveting my friends’ lives, their children, the apparent ease that is always the illusion of a life seen from the outside. Like Leslie, I’ve been guilty of feeling anger at someone else for a happiness I couldn’t share, even when that happiness took nothing from me.

Earlier this year, I had had enough. I resolved that 2012 would be the year that I learn to overcome that natural jealousy, that I learn how to be truly content with my life exactly where it is, without feeling the need to look over my neighbor’s fence. And as I pondered, and journaled, and read, and soul-searched about the issue, I came up with a deceptively simple answer:

Live in gratitude. That was it. Could it really be that simple, I wondered? Could a life lived in gratitude have the power to overcome the vice I’d struggled with for twenty-four years?

I set about testing the principle out. I promised myself that the next time I caught myself looking with envy at somebody else’s life, I’d think instead, What they have is wonderful. But what I have is wonderful, too.

And, to my surprise, it worked. I felt myself becoming more and more aware of all of the things I loved about my life. I found that suddenly, even the things that hadn’t turned out in the way I wanted them to had become sources of blessings; I began to rejoice over all the unexpected twists and turns I’d encountered in my life and the exciting and unanticipated places they had taken me. I discovered, to my delight, that scenes and situations that had once filled me with jealousy and bitterness no longer disturbed my equanimity—unless I let them.

I was the “master of my fate,” I realized; it was up to me to decide what the condition of my heart would be on any given day. Simply the act of acknowledging my own power, and making a conscious choice to live in gratitude and let go of my envy, was bringing more change into my life than I ever could have imagined.

It hasn’t been a perfect, or a permanent, change, of course. Since that May day when I made my decision, I’ve experienced plenty of periods where I’ve let go, let frustration and ingratitude creep back into my life. Like anyone, I’ve had down days—but they have come less frequently than they did before.

As I write this, I find myself marveling over the difference that such a simple choice has made in my life. It seems silly, elementary, hardly worth discussing. But I can’t shake the idea that, this year, I have come upon the secret of happiness:

And its name is gratitude.

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