We were all surprised to see my daughter on TV. It was just a local-access cable station. But still, there was something exciting about watching her recent school play on the air.
My other daughter, however, was furious. She burst into angry tears and sat with clenched fists on the sofa.
"Why isn't my class's play on TV?" she demanded.
My wife and I didn't know. Both daughters were in second grade at the same school, but only one class showed up on the broadcast.
"It's not fair!" my daughter kept saying. At first, I'm afraid, we just ignored her pouting. I even got angry with her for being so petty.
"Life's not fair!" I barked back.
But I knew that wasn't really going to help or to answer her question. As I thought more about her anger and unhappiness, I realized this was a situation that called for healing, not cynical judgments.
"Madeline," I started again, "you know the Commandments."
"I'm not stealing, Dad."
" 'Thou shalt not covet,' " I reminded her.
"I don't want her stuff," she said. "I just want my play to be on TV the way hers was. Everybody at school is going to be talking about it, and it's not fair!"
"Why do the Commandments say not to covet?"
A silent groan spread across her face, in preparation for "A Lecture on How To Behave." But I pushed on.
"The Commandments don't just tell us not to do things that are bad. They tell us how to live a happy life. And coveting - insisting that you've got to have what someone else has - will make you unhappy and unkind ... as I think you're discovering right now."
I could tell she understood this. But the sting of envy was still troubling her.
Madeline's turmoil got me thinking about what's fair and what's not. I had to confess to myself that I've felt envious when I've read yet another story about another twentysomething Internet millionaire. Several months ago, Newsweek ran a cartoon cover that I could relate to. The picture showed a harried man grabbing his forehead and screaming, "Everybody's getting rich but me!"
Seeing my daughter's struggle as being a common problem for us to address together helped me drop my schoolmarm attitude. That night, as she was getting ready for bed, I tried to reason with her instead of at her.
I knew that she'd been learning about God in Sunday School. One of the most important lessons about God stems from the First Commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." We talked about knowing that there is only one God and that this God is completely good. My daughter had also learned that because we reflect the nature of God, who is Love, we each possess a loving nature that is here to be discovered.
"But I'll feel so bad at school," she said, "when everybody is talking about it and getting all excited about seeing them on TV instead of me."
"I know," I said. "Sometimes I feel jealous of people, too. But here is the only thing that will work: you've got to know that you and everyone at school reflect God and His goodness. You can be grateful for the success that other people have, without feeling cheated out of anything. You can be happy for them - really happy - because we're all in this together."
She seemed comforted by our discussion. When I left her room, I thought about something the founder of this newspaper had written. After noting that the First Commandment was her "favorite text," she said, "One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' ..." (Mary Baker Eddy, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 340). I knew that my daughter was beginning to understand her happy unity with God, and that she could have its blessing.
The next day after school, she was full of excitement about her friends' TV debut.
"We were all talking about it," she squealed. "We were asking for their autographs and telling them to pose. It was great."
Indeed, it was great. We could all see that understanding our common relationship to God can heal envy and help us delight in someone else's success.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society