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When covetous thoughts strain family ties

My whole life, I have been very close to my sister, my only sibling. We are two years apart in age, attended colleges in the same city, and both settled in the Bay Area, where we grew up. My dilemma is the increasing unease I feel in her presence. Both my sister, we’ll call her Pam, and her husband have very lucrative careers, she in technology and he in finance. They live in a 5,000-square-foot house on two acres, send their children to an exclusive private school, drive very expensive cars, and take lavish vacations abroad and to their house in Hawaii.

I am a physician’s assistant at a nonprofit health clinic and my husband is head of the math department at a community college. We own a 1,200-square-foot house in a “transitional” neighborhood and send our children to the public school that was our fourth choice in the selection lottery. We take two vacations a year – both in California.

More and more, I find myself envious of my sister’s life and hardly able to tolerate her talking about her family’s latest vacation abroad or her new Tesla. Our children are approaching their teens and have never been out of the mainland United States. It pains me when their cousins show them cellphone photos of skiing in Austria and whale-watching in New Zealand — while we sit by their pool. We can’t even afford to visit them in Hawaii. I find myself wanting to avoid being with my sister and her family despite wanting my kids to grow up with a close-knit extended family. Any advice? — A.J.

Dear A.J.: Mensch feels your pain as life in the Bay Area, and all over this economically bifurcated country, is increasingly a story of the haves and the have-lesses. But even as we notice the increasing fortune of others, let’s be cautious about how we measure our own worth. You and your husband have meaningful careers in respected, competitive fields, your own home in a vibrant locale, children, and each other. There are countless people without any of those blessings, much less all of them. So let’s start there.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising your sister’s affluence would have an effect on you. It’s human nature to be attracted to fancy things and to want the best in life, especially when it comes to providing for our children. In citing your feelings of envy as central to this dilemma, you are demonstrating self-awareness and a willingness to take responsibility for your part in this situation. After all, it’s unlikely you will change Pam’s lifestyle choices.

The very last commandment, the 10th, mandates that we not covet. It is arguably the only commandment we can violate completely in our minds — without any associated action or lack of action.

Coming at it from another angle, the first of Buddhism’s  four noble truths states that suffering is an unavoidable fact of life and the second noble truth states that all suffering is caused by craving, desire. So you can take some comfort in knowing your dilemma is a fundamental, perhaps unavoidable, aspect of the human condition even as you work toward diminishing its hold on you. That said, while you work on the metaphysical level, please allow Mensch to suggest a few practical, more external measures.

Understandably, the effect of this wealth disparity on your own children seems to loom large for you and perhaps there is a two-fold approach for mitigating this. First, your children need to know how much they have — a home with two loving, employed parents, enough food, access to education and many other relative advantages. They know how good their rich cousins have it, but have they ever volunteered in a soup kitchen or convalescent hospital to see how other, less fortunate people live?

And speaking of their cousins, perhaps there is a way for your kids to benefit from their good fortune. You’ve been close to your sister. Perhaps you can share with her your desire to show your children the world and how grateful you would be if she and her husband invited them along now and then to accompany their cousins to see it. You say you can’t afford a family vacation to Hawaii, but might you be able to rustle funds for a couple of economy tickets for your kids?

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.