In Asia, it’s common to look at a new baby and say “wah… he’s very ugly,” whilst screwing up one’s face into a tight grimace. Most Westerners are offended by this. We’re accustomed to cooing over new-borns whilst complimenting the parents on their great good luck. So, why the difference? It’s all down to culture. The Asian belief is that the gods can hear what you say and if the baby is deemed to be sweet-looking or well-behaved, the compliments will attract heavenly curses, damning the infant to a life of hard knocks.
This isn’t such a rare concept. Throughout the Mediterranean people believe strongly in using talismans against the Evil Eye. Greek fishing boats bear a painted eye which never closes, thus always alert to potential danger. Turks wear the Evil Eye around their necks or paint it by their doors to keep malevolent forces at bay. Sicilians, Spaniards, the Ancient Egyptians, in fact, most known cultures identify that when someone looks at some aspect of your life with envy whilst praising it (could be your spouse, child, possessions, appearance or success), they may be casting their jealous vibes or Evil Eye on you, with disastrous consequences.
This week a beautiful Vietnamese poem came my way. Called TheTale of Kieu, it addresses this human flaw of jealousy.
Where bamboo covers case Old manuscripts of countless price Preserved in fragrant spice, Sit by a lamp and study well The story that they tell How in the dynasty of Ming When Jia-ching was the king And all his empire was at rest, Among those who were blessed With learning was a man named Vuong. He had a son, the young Vuong-Quan, to carry on his name And literary fame; And two girls, Thuy-Van and Thuy-Kieu, Who were as slim as two Young poplar trees, as pure as snow. But Kieu was yet more fair, The elder’s merits took the prize. Like autumn seas her eyes, Eyebrows like spring hills far away. Flowers wished they were as gay; The aspen shook with envying her. One glance of Kieu’s could stir Cities or empires to revolt! Her beauty had no fault, Nor in her mind was any flaw She’d write in verse, or draw, Excel at playing on the lute, And, choosing tunes to suit, Compose songs for herself to sing. One such, so sad a thing The listeners wept, she called “Cruel Fate”. It’s always been the same: Good fortune seldom came the way Of those endowed, they say, With genius and a dainty face, What tragedies take place Within each circling space of years! “Rich in good looks” appears to mean poor luck and tears of woe; which may sound strange, I know, but is not really so, I swear, since Heaven everywhere seems jealous of the fair of face.
Vietnam identifies itself with Kieu; it is a country that has been punished for unwittingly attracting the jealousy of others, creating great problems for itself. However, in spite of all the hardships, Vietnam bounces back time and time again. It is a stoic culture.
In life, people are seldom happy with their lot. They’re single and want to be attached. They’re attached and feel suffocated, wishing for freedom. They live in a good house but covet their friend’s larger one. They wish they were as slim as so-and-so, or had their neighbour’s smart new car. They want a colleague’s job or a friend’s success. It’s symptomatic of the materialistic world we inhabit.
How does this attract the Evil Eye? Well, in order to get the colleague’s job, one might let slip gossip of colleague’s transgression at work. In another case, a compliment may come across as bitter or sarcastic, making the recipient feel bad. Perhaps an otherwise strong relationship may falter beneath the all-consuming green-eyed monster. Where human nature is involved, anything’s possible.
So, why can’t we just be happy for our fellow man? Would it really be so hard to say “well done, you deserve it.” when a friend is promoted, or “he’s worked hard to achieve that weight loss, and doesn’t he look great?” when discussing a friend’s new, svelte look. Such encouraging words are generous and kind. Surely it feels better to make someone’s day rather than sit around and bitch about them.
Epicurus would relate this to desire and the pain related to not getting what you want. We weren’t born with friend’s good looks, we can’t afford Bill’s new car, we don’t have a designer dress for so-and-so’s party on Saturday. The Epicurean recommendation? Modify your desires. If you desire less, you will be happier because you will find that what you wish for is easier to achieve. Once achieved, your desire will become satisfaction, which, in turn will create pleasure.
A side-effect of the Epicurean way of thinking is that we will feel better about ourselves and therefore the grass will be greener on THIS side of the fence, thus removing the need, subconscious or otherwise, for casting the Evil Eye on our friends. We could spend the previously negative energy on being proud of each other, helping each other and learning from each other. After all, no one has everything. Even the richest person on the planet has sadnesses and insecurities, so when we see someone doing well, we should be happy for them. Surely this will strengthen our relationships and improve the quality of our lives so that we no longer look over the fence, wishing we were on the other side.