Bible reference – Exodus 20:17
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.KJV
What I thought this meant: Don’t be jealous of other people’s things.
What I think this really means: Beware of comparing yourself to others.
Covet is another word that I learned from the bible. It is akin to envy. What’s wrong with envy? Is it terrible to want something someone else has? That seems like an innocent impulse, a fleeting thought in the mind. Unlike the 8th Commandment, the desire does not transform into action. At a restaurant, if see a delicious dish on another table, I often think about ordering it myself. Does that mean I am going to hell? That seems pretty silly. And if it is about leading to theft or vandalism, other Commandments seem to address those already.
However, what if this refers to the act of comparing oneself to others? That sounds harmless enough, also. It can be a motivator, after all. How do we know how good we are unless we check the field? Does the prospect of a high school reunion excite or frighten you? Gauging your own value is probably one of the biggest challenges of life. If we look closely though, this Commandment explicitly mentions your neighbor’s house, then goes to his wife, his ox, his ass, and then anything else – it’s talking about your neighbor’s life. Perhaps it is saying, do not compare your life with another’s life.
Even further, many of these listed items could be symbols of wealth. Having a house – not everyone can buy a house. Owning a home is a traditional symbol of wealth, any person that has to rent housing on a monthly or weekly basis can tell you. Owning an ox and an ass – could everyone in the time of the bible’s writing have such animals? The bible does mention oxen and asses relatively often, but oxen require a lot of resources to maintain – pastures, fencing, feed, all of which would require a fair bit of money in any time. The ox was even made into an idol for worship (Exodus: 32:8). Bulls are the symbol today for aggressive accumulation of wealth. Then of course, everyone has a manservant AND a maidservant, right? It seems hard to believe the common person in the days of the bible had servants. So why mention manservant and maidservant explicitly in outlining this Commandment. It seems reasonable to infer that this suggests we not envy those who seemingly have more money or means, or specifically the wealthy.
There is a tyranny in wealth. When people prioritize money, then there is a soft acceptance of suffering, murder, and slavery. If a discrete value can be calculated for an individual’s inconvenience, death, or freedom… then under certain circumstances, they can be outbid. This is the problem of chasing wealth as a purpose. It’s easy to think less of oneself because of being poor. Money can be counted, so the contrast is simple. Here’s the thing: the richest people in the world are neither the happiest, nor most fulfilled. If this were true, we would not have opioid pandemics. Ask Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos why they each got divorced (unless being a 1,000,000x “happier” than 99% of people is not enough to keep their family together). So in a broad sense, there is no point in that comparison.
Then there is the culture of “Keeping up with the Joneses” – where many people bankrupt themselves or put themselves under financial pressure to maintain a lifestyle they cannot afford. Whether it’s a kid spending way too much for big brands to seem cool at school or a young family taking a hefty mortgage to live in the same neighborhood as their richer friends, this is not healthy. Here’s the thing: if these people are your friends, you don’t need to lie to them about anything, and it should not matter what you wear or where you live. Guess what? It is likely your “rich” friends are probably also deeply in debt trying to impress someone else. Even worse, it may even be you, and you are all stuck in this giant circle of debt, living lives none of you can really afford. And if it turns out they are rich… it doesn’t matter. They are still able to sweep people into their vortex of debt and empty pursuits. Luxury by definition is not necessary.
Even if you take the wealth component out – in an era of social media, people develop eating disorders or mental illnesses trying to look like impossibly beautiful people on the internet (Covet thy neighbor’s ass indeed). In many instances, these pursuits are hollow and deceptive, enhanced by photoshop, implants, or other lies. Regardless, vulnerable people can be enslaved by these lifestyles, out of a desire and pressure to be like those around them.
Does this pass the Ricky Gervais Test? Yes. Time has proven that diversity survives and thrives, while homogeneity tends to be vulnerable. The more rigid something is, the easier it breaks. The natural conclusion to a society that constantly looks to compare and emulate is to become uniform, and there is wisdom in counting every life as something wholly unique.
Does it make sense at #10? Yes. Even though we are all living life, it is not a race where are all striving for the same destination. We exploded out of a concentration of matter and came hurtling into existence, going in every direction at every speed at every moment. The amazing thing about the universe is the infinite variety and complexity. What is the best element on the periodic table? What are the top 10 molecules? Those feel like the wrong question, don’t they? Some of us will be gold, some of us will be oxygen, some of us will be astatine, but we all have purpose.
This is a message that has taken me years to appreciate. In Japan, I love that a convenience store clerk has as much reverence and pride for his job as a person guarding the president, or the actual president. He’s not thinking, “this job is beneath me”. He’s not thinking people are looking down on me because I am doing a service job. The world cannot operate with 8 billion CEOs. Only humans care about ratings, but its mainly people trying to sell things: products as well as themselves. Remember, for all the pizza places that have a “#1 pizza” banner, ask yourself where all the “best pizza” contests have been held, what were the rules, and who participated.
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”Martha Graham
Up to this point, the Commandments have given us a roadmap of how to conduct ourselves, as well as how to interact with other people. Because you are the only you that will ever exist in the universe, it is your duty to be you.
What an exhilarating postscript.