Transforming Jealousy: A Lesson from Yusuf's [as] Story
Notes from Receiving Nur lecture with Dr. Yamina Bouguenaya Edited by Isra Yazicioglu
As is well known, Yusuf’s [as] brothers were so jealous of him that they wanted to get rid of him. Can you relate? Well, not in the sense of killing someone out of jealousy, but in the sense of being jealous? If so, let us see what is that makes jealousy so tempting and how we can transform it…
Feeling jealous is a messenger, or in Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s words, “a guest” sent from beyond into our world. Welcome the messenger of God, welcome the guest! Let us see what noble message this messenger brings from beyond!
Jealousy says: here is a quality I appreciate, and I lack it in me, and I want it. When we are jealous of someone, we are responding to a genuine wish in our hearts. In the case of Yusuf’s [as] brothers it is the love of their father. Appreciating being loved and wanting to have that for yourself is perfectly fine and actually great! If we could not appreciate beauty that reflects on others and want to reflect it as well, then we would not be able to be on any spiritual journey of appreciating the One. So jealousy is essentially a genuine messenger. Yet, we can choose how to respond to it. It is in that next step that we find ourselves at a crossroads.
The Prophet (as) said jealousy is lethal. What makes jealousy “lethal” is to ascribe that the quality I appreciate to the person on whom it manifests as though she were the cause. And, since I do not see myself causing or engendering the same attribute, I feel lacking and uneasy. Seeing the other person having what I do not and cannot have becomes a painful reminder of my lack. In desperation, I wish that reminder to disappear. Hence, I end up wishing that person to lose. This attitude is the result of being stuck at apparent causes, by attributing to them to them the power to produce effects. Such a person is disconnected from her Sustainer [rabb] and therefore from the source of abundance. Consequently, she lives in a state of scarcity. In her distorted perception, it seems that “things happen on their own, without wisdom and mercy. We live in a world in which beauty and benefit are scarce, and we have to fight over them to see who gets them. Some must be losers, not everyone can be satisfied and get what they yearn for.” These are the fake and narrow assumptions that we may be unconsciously carrying around in our hearts and minds.
When we see the world from this paradigm of scarcity, we want the other person to lose what we do not have, even if it is clear that when she loses it we will not get it still. For, we think that at least we will not have a reminder of what we lack.
To be more precise, this troubling conclusion starts at home, I mean in our own self-perception. If I perceive myself as the source of my own goodness then I think the person whom I am jealous of is the source of what I covet in him… Yet, is that really true? Let me think of any of the good things that I may be congratulating myself about, it could be anything that I may happen to regard as good, such as physical appearance, health, intelligence, wealth, family, friends, personality, etc. Am I really the source of any of them? For instance, I have no idea what goes in my body or of how my brain works, on what basis will I think that I cause my health and intelligence?
The good news is the logic of scarcity, this unfounded vision, is not our only alternative. When we appreciate something and realize that we do not have access to it at the moment, we actually do have a choice to interpret it differently than pushing ourselves into logic of scarcity. I can choose the true logic of abundance: We live in a world that displays endless varieties of blessings, the One who creates this world is indeed Generous and Rich, and cares about me. So, when I see that someone is given a particular blessing, then his being given becomes an evidence that I can also be given. My yearning for what he has becomes my way of becoming aware that I am given the potential to want and receive such blessing. So, instead of wanting the other person to suffer, I can rejoice! The person becomes an illustration of a beauty that I appreciate and I may be grateful for experiencing that beauty through him and also recognize that if I am given a yearning to have it it is my time for prayer. If I am coveting success* that I see in someone, I can transform it and say: “oh, I see that this person is successful. I appreciate being successful. I also want it. I realize that I also want it so much. The One who gave it to him can also give to me. The One who makes me want this is telling me that I have a potential to receive such blessing, too. Oh God, the Eternal Source of all blessings, thank you for making me see this beauty, and please also give me from that nice thing as you gave to that person.” This is the beauty of tawhid…
*For the sake of simplicity, here I set aside the question of perception, i.e. whether what I see is genuine success, etc.