Envy and jealousy have a particular flavor in the expat life, as well. We peg ourselves based on certain standards: who has the most coveted type of visa (I could write an entire blog post on the various visas here, as well as their benefits). Who has the golden "expat package" of Western salary, housing allowance, international school tuition, driver, maid, and ample vacation time. Who has the most beautiful apartment in the most beautiful part of town with the nicest amenities. Who has the best Chinese language skills. And yes, who has the hottest body (a lot of these are universal, aren't they? :).
A few months after Brian and I moved to China, it was difficult not to have a perpetual pity party. We were living in a drafty, noisy, and dirty dorm room, with no privacy, in the middle of a food desert. We had very limited language skills, we spent all of our energy just (attempting to) meet basic needs, and honestly, we had no idea why we were here. So yes, I admittedly spent much time comparing myself to everyone around me, hoping my life would improve, and fighting jealousy at the seemingly charmed lives of others.
One family we met in those first few months had an especially charmed life: they were here on that coveted expat package. Mom, Dad, and kids were strikingly beautiful, and dressed stunningly for every occasion. I felt equal parts gratitude and envy when the Mom invited me over one afternoon for coffee. She had the nicest living space I had seen in China, and of course it was impeccably decorated with expensive appliances, plush sofa, and gorgeous artwork that she herself had painted! Even as I sipped the delicious latte she made me, complete with frothed imported milk and homemade cookie, I tried not to choke on the beauty of it all.
As we came to know each other better, however, I learned not everything was as beautiful as it seemed. That posh expat package of theirs came with a relational toll that brought deep pain into their lives. I humbly realized that for all of the ugliness around Brian and me at the time, we had a relational beauty that my new friend lacked.
Both of us had a choice at that moment. We could choose to resent the other person, jealous of the blessings that we ourselves did not have. Or we could choose to treasure the blessings that we DID have, as well as ask God how we could share our blessings with others.
The following are hard-earned lessons about jealousy that I've learned the past three years:
1) Gratitude is not just a nicety; it's essential to our mental health. While many people may give lip service to the practice of gratitude, they rarely plumb the depths of its power. Often gratitude is reduced to something we do at Thanksgiving in order to appease those around the table.
I imagine this dilution is often because we don't name the Recipient of our thanks. When we say "I'm grateful for [insert blessing here]," WHO are we thanking? Only Someone worthy of receiving the gratitude gives meaning to the blessing in the first place. Otherwise, our serendipity becomes merely a blip of chance and circumstance.
As we recognize the One who brought the blessing to us in the first place, we come to realize that we are part of a Story much bigger than our personal vicissitudes. We see that even in caring about the most minute details of our lives, this Someone is also active in increasingly expanding circles that reach to the cosmos. And as we see the Divine Hand at work in greater arenas of reality, our gratitude likewise increases.
Gratitude and humility beget blessing--we don't praise in order to receive blessing, but blessing (often in surprising packaging) is nonetheless a side product of extolling the Blesser. Tongues full of praise and thankfulness cannot simultaneously curse and lament. When we practice gratitude, and gain knowledge of the One who should receive it, all temptations of despair and nihilism must flee. My personal story, especially within the past few years, is living proof of this truth.
2) Blessing is NOT a scarce resource. Why is it we are tempted to despise the success of someone else? How are we harmed when another person loses 20 pounds, or meets their future spouse, or secures a good job? Very rarely is someone else's success a direct attack on our own.
I've come to realize that the Blesser intends to give in abundance. In other words, success and accomplishment are meant to multiply into bigger and bigger heaps of wholeness. It seems, however, that WHERE we are looking for success makes all the difference.
Where are we putting our identity? Do we only think blessing comes from a certain job title, a certain university degree, a certain zip code, or a certain name brand? If so, then of course we'll spend our entire lives fighting others for these scarce resources. And the bitter truth is, they will slip through our fingers time and time again as we grasp at them with increasing panic. These scarce resources may give us success with one hand, but they will always take something from us with another: our marriages, our health, our friendships, our hope.
Some of the most amazing people I've ever met do not have the flashiest degrees or job titles. They don't appear on a magazine cover, or live in the most hallowed hamlets. Yet their lives are full of excitement and joy because they have chosen to seek meaning in places that the world often overlooks. They are creating new jobs, they are educating the next generation, they are making beauty, and bringing hope, and restoring relationships. Some of these people may, at some point, end up with one of those "scarce resources" blessings. Yet they realize such a blessing doesn't define them. It is not a goal in itself, yet merely a means to the greater, more enduring blessings of abundance.
As they multiply all these blessings, they are finding that "the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone"(Psalm 118:22). These people aren't delusional, or settling for a consolation prize. The Blesser has opened their eyes to see the REAL blessing around them. This type of blessing gives with BOTH hands. It only demands our humility in return.
3) Often what seems to be a liability is actually a blessing. A couple years ago, when Brian and I were in a very disorienting and painful season of waiting on jobs, I was tempted to despise the unstructured time on our hands.
Yet a still, small voice reminded me that the unstructured time was also a blessing. The hours I had at my disposal were clay that I could craft however I chose. As I looked around me, I realized there were people who were desperate for such clay, as their ossified schedule left no room for little life-giving moments of spontaneity. God invited me to bless others with our time.
There was a couple we knew whose marriage was struggling because they were too busy. Between the jobs (yes, one of those "sexy" jobs I coveted), the kids, and the ministry service, their marriage had been reduced to tasks and chores. They craved a simple date night, just the two of them. Brian and I therefore felt led to use the blessing of our time to babysit for them one evening.
I was grateful to watch their children, as it distracted me from wondering about my own problems and questions. I was also happy that the couple paid for my dinner that night in a season where money was tight for us. In turn, that couple was able to enjoy some much-needed time together. They could remember why they loved each other in the first place. In short, all of us experienced hope and a breath of fresh air by sharing our blessings with each other.
In conclusion, what are the blessings in your life? Do you experience them merely as good luck, or do you hear the whispers of a Blesser who is inviting you to experience happiness in increasing abundance? I admit I still struggle to live fully into the three truths that I've listed above. Yet I find the more I can internalize these truths and practice them in little everyday decisions, the more my attitude moves from jealousy to blessedness.