The True Plague for Us

The other day, in my post “Are Hungarians Especially Sad?” I told about how a former student (from Varga, now at university) had asked me what I thought of a Quora comment that Hungarians are the saddest people in Europe. He also wrote (I am quoting this with his permission) that “the true plague for us is this permanent inability to feel contented, without envy and avarice.” In other words, in his view, life in Hungary is not so terrible, relative to life in general, nor is everyone bitter and depressed, but there are many young people who think they could have a better life elsewhere. This is the plague: the thought that other people, other countries have it better, and if I could just whisk myself over into their position, I would be fine.

A certain kind of discontent is necessary for life and for the things we want to do well. I am continually revising my writing, whether for sound, language, meaning, accuracy, or something else. Musicians play and play, even at the highest levels, to come closer to what they imagine and hear. Athletes train and train, and compete and compete. But in all those cases, you are working on something in yourself; you are the locus of improvement.

The dangerous kind of discontent occurs when we want something “over there”: something someone else has, something in another country, something belonging to a particular social group. Surely there are people we admire and would like to emulate—but when we aggressively try to get what they have, or resent them for having it, we make a mess of our lives.

Is this a particularly Hungarian tendency? I doubt it. But it may play out in a particular way in Hungary, especially among young people who tire of the government’s isolationist rhetoric and long to see the world. It’s easy, in that position, to imagine that life in the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands would be not only more comfortable, but more exciting too, with more of an opening to the world, more opportunity, more of a future. And for some individuals, this might be somewhat true. But beyond that, it’s human error all over again.

First of all, it involves “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides” (as a wise person said to me long ago). New York looks like an incredible, bustling city bursting with talent and all walks of life. And that it is. But if you live there, as I did for fifteen years, you don’t necessarily want to take it in. The work days and commutes are long, and at the end of it all you might want to go home and listen to music in your room. That is, if you have a place that’s quiet enough for that. When I was living in Brooklyn, there were block parties in my neighborhood that boomed so loud that my chair and desk shook. And so many people in NYC live in cramped, crowded spaces and still have to pay exorbitant rent. Don’t get me wrong: the city lives up to its reputation. But living there is different from seeing it from afar.

Second, when you covet something to extremes (when you go beyond mild envy toward action), you start to become ugly inside. You think of others not in terms of who they are, but in terms of what they have. You find ways to put them down in your mind, to level them with you or even bring them below you. I see more of this in the U.S. than in Hungary, but maybe that just comes with familiarity. I imagine it happens all over the world.

But back to the original quote from my former student: if this kind of envy or dissatisfaction is “the true plague,” then it goes beyond the individual. It spreads from person to person; it becomes a worldview. That’s the worst aspect of it; by indulging in that kind of discontent, you affect others too. You show them, through your attitude and actions, that simple joys in life are to be scorned, that the only valid happiness is “over there,” wherever “there” may be. People start believing that they are unworthy if they don’t have a house, or make a certain amount of money, or have a beautiful boyfriend or girlfriend, or look lovely and skinny themselves.

I believe that this is universal but multifarious; different cultures exhibit it in different ways. Many Hungarians I have met attach importance to material attainments. Some do not, but overall it seems to be assumed that you’re doing well if you have a house and car. (This exists in the U.S. too, but there are many countertendencies.) On the other hand, people here are not enraptured, generally, with hype and fame; quality comes first. In the U.S., hype is a way of life. Kids learn to promote themselves before they learn to make something worth promoting.

How do you go about combating this plague? First, see it for what it is, in yourself and others, and then turn the attention to things that matter: doing things well, treating others decently, contributing something to the world. But this requires a lot of strength and vigilance. It’s not for nothing that at least five of the Ten Commandments (the number depends on how you interpret them) forbid envy or its consequences; envy is all around us and can tear a person, a relationship, a society apart.

Sometimes happiness does exist “over there.” Sometimes it does make sense to move to another city, country, apartment, or whatever the case may be. It isn’t all delusion, which makes the matter more complicated. But the delusion is always close at hand, and oh so tempting because of the shortcuts it dangles before us: not only shortcuts to wealth or success, but an exit from ourselves and those around us.

Art credit: James Ward, Ignorance, Envy and Jealousy (oil on canvas, 1837).

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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