John McCain and the envy that leads us to action

Dickerson on why we need more benign envy
Dickerson on why we need more benign envy 02:45

In this installment of Reporter's Notebook, "CBS This Morning" co-host John Dickerson takes a look at how selfless actions inspire all of us. This week, we've shared stories about two men, Sen. John McCain and former President Jimmy Carter, who embody those qualities, showing that service often goes hand-in-hand with sacrifice.  

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Advertisers use envy to push us to buy products we don't need. In social media, envy carves out that hollow feeling. Envy is to be avoided.

But this week, David Letterman introduced me to a different envy. The envy that leads to action. His envy for people who made a difference in the world drew him to former President Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity. For the last 14 years, he's clipped on a tool belt and swung the hammer building houses. He says it changed his life.

"The first time we did it, everybody came up to me and said, 'Oh thank you, oh thank you, oh thank you.' And I said, 'You're crazy. You're crazy. Thank you,'" Letterman told me. "You would get that from any of these people in the helmets building now. They are indebted to the president [Carter], to Habitat for Humanity giving them the opportunity to help people. Because when you help others, you feel better about yourself."

This is called benign envy: the desire to be better when we see someone doing something good. This was the theme of many of the tributes to Sen. John McCain. People felt called to be their best because his example drew people to, as he used to say, "serve a cause greater than self-interest."

Tomorrow's memorial for Sen. McCain will perhaps stir the kind of benign envy my mother used to feel at funerals. After hearing the deceased described with words like character, generosity and love, she would leave the funeral inspired to go out and live her life that way.

So we need more envy in the world. Whether you envy John McCain, Jimmy Carter, David Letterman or mom, the envy that leads us to action is not a sin but salvation.

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