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  • Reverend James Squire

Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced after 27 years of marriage. It came as a surprise to many. It has come on the heels of Jeff Bezos’ divorce after 25 years of marriage. There is an important message that we can learn from these sad events. One lesson is certainly that the “grass is not greener on the other side of the fence.” This phrase often becomes the heart of the human enterprise and it is a dangerous dynamic that can cause us to feel less of a person than we should feel.

Comparing ourselves to others always leaves us coming up short. The opposite feeling of being better than someone else has us feeling one up on others which is also a lonely position. No one likes the know it all. We see others, at times, in extremes. They are perfect such as the Gates or imperfect such as a famous people who have a downfall.

If we had a survey of couples who would like to trade places with these giants of Microsoft, I think that there would be a large number of people who would be fighting to be in the front of the line to be Bill and Melinda.

Let’s first take a look at being envious of others. In the Letter to James, we are reminded that “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:6) When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to focus on traits that we feel that we don’t have. In the process we fail to see ourselves and others as a whole. If we don’t have a lot of money, we may feel that Bill and Melinda have achieved something that we wish that we had. But we fail to see the gifts that we have such as the ability to work through painful relationships to get to a better outcome for ourselves and others.

I have had the opportunity to work with people who seem to have it all, both the young and the old. One of the privileges of being a Chaplain at a large school is that when I looked out on a whole school gathering, I knew many of the back stories of the people in front of me.

There was a pattern of chapel addresses which I had to be careful about to protect the speakers. Adults and students who “seemed to have it all” would ask to address chapel about the parts of them that others didn’t have the privilege of knowing. Their addresses empowered others to leave the world of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” There was not an issue that was not covered. For example, after an address where an issue such as depression was shared by a “student or adult who was the envy of all,” there was a dramatic increase in visits to faculty advisors, our psychological services, and me for them to get help. It made the school a more humane place. The key to this success was the faculty who really bought into the advisor system that I developed. For some it was their most important role.

Comparing one to another is seen more frequently in men than women. It is a gender issue. Men are always interested in status in our conversations. We like to have the upper hand. Women are less so this way. This is a generalization formed by culture not by biology.

The other side of envy is just as dangerous. It is the reason that tabloid journalism exists. When people achieve a certain status for an achievement such as a famous public figure or someone less well known who is a peer, we take great joy and vicarious satisfaction when they fall from their pillar of fame. Sometimes we have the most joy when the individual on the pillar of fame is narcissistic in nature and always expresses that he or she is better than anyone else.

What is the solution to this troubling part of ourselves? It is rather amazing what a life filled with gratitude can do to produce happiness, joy, and meaning and counteract envy. In a recent sermon at St. David’s Church in Wayne, one of the recipients of this blog via email, the Reverend Dr. Alexander (Sandy) McCurdy, mentioned an exchange that he had with former Head of School, Jay Crawford. Sandy shared with us that Jay remarked recently that “now he doesn’t ask for anything in his prayer life. He only gives thanks.” Gratitude.

Sheldon Kopp, author of If You Meet The Buddha On the Road, Kill Him, is a seasoned therapist who commented that “if you have a hero, you may have diminished yourself.” He meant don’t get into the deadly business of comparing yourself to others. Have a hero who guides your actions, but be careful not to make others perfect for the desire for perfection in ourselves and others takes us to an area of pain for all of us.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad things Happen To Good People, expressed my view of life as it is. He said, “Tragedy doesn’t have a ticket into our lives. It has a box seat. It is not a matter of if you will encounter it. It is a matter only of when.” Nobody and no life are perfect! As it turns out this is true for cultural symbols of having it all like the Bezos(s) and Bill and Melinda Gates.

The “Tale of the Tree of Sorrows” says that when we die, we have the opportunity to walk around a tree and put our greatest sorrow on the tree, but we must take someone else’s off. The tale recounts that after we complete the walk around the tree, we take our original sorrow off and put back on the one that we chose of another that we think would be better.

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