Understanding greed and envy

“I want the big half,” said Isabelle, flashing her joyful five-year-old grin. I was dividing an ice-cream sandwich to share. “Well,” I said, “both halves are the same size, but you can choose the one you want. Do you like to having the bigger piece?” “Yes,” she replied, choosing.

“Wanting the bigger piece is called greedy,” I said, giving her the half she wanted. She’s learned about opposites at preschool. “And the opposite of greedy?” I asked. She stood silently. “The opposite of greedy is generous, enjoying giving someone else the bigger piece,” I explained, and we walked together hand-in-hand from the kitchen nibbling our treats.

People naturally desire the pleasures of the world, a response of brain and body chemistry modified by cultural conventions tied to status and hierarchy. Sought as a basis of energy and nourishment, sweet food in particular is attractive to many animals, including people. I’ve watched the local crows perched in my neighbor’s persimmon tree eagerly stabbing the ripened sugary treats for hours. There are many nutritionists who suggest that processed sugar was humanity’s first addictive drug.

Eating to excess seems to be related to ancient bio-neurological pathways that are associated with surviving periods of famine and make periods of abundance an opportunity to over indulge. In modern America famine is no longer a concern, but evolutionary biology cannot be left behind overnight; accordingly, obesity and various diseases associated with it are now epidemic. The biological basis of greed, however, can and should be differentiated from the cultural basis of greed; individual human behavior and collective human society are inseparable.

My father always advocated “looking out for number one” and explicitly offered that advice while I was growing up. “Nobody is waking up today thinking about what they can do for Larry Barnett,” he’d lecture when he felt I was being lazy or irresponsible. Such advice is fairly common and even has its place and time, but it is essentially greedy. I’ve come to understand society is bettered by “looking out for number two” and found that waking up thinking about what I can do for others improves my own disposition and behavior.

In 2010, I “looked out for number two” by caring for my father during his last year of life. He thanked me profusely but never really stopped being obsessed with himself and what he’d lost. Sadly, he died believing that in some way he’d been screwed. I followed up in 2011 by helping my mother across the finish line at 89; she too had decided life was all about her; “It’s not fair, Larry,” she said two days before she died. In 2012, I cared for my wife while she was successfully treated for an aggressive form of cancer; she worried about herself, of course, but in contrast to my parents’ self-obsession, her concern was also for our kids and grandchildren, her friends, and me.

Isabelle and I played a card-matching game after dinner, and she was pretty good. “I won!” she declared, looking pleased with herself. “Do you like to win?” I asked her. She nodded. “Do you like it when I win?” I inquired. She shook her head “no.” “That’s called envy; envy is wanting something good that someone else has,” I explained  shuffling the cards for another game. “And the opposite of envy,” she replied moving closer, “is a hug!”