Taking Joy in Another’s Misfortune: “Schadenfreude”

The Japanese put it this way: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.”

Hmm. Not always and not to everyone, but this kind of emotion is something we’ve all observed and experienced. The Germans offer us a single word for it: Schadenfreude.

Two German words are combined. Schaden and Freude meld the idea of another’s harm with joy in the one who watches or discovers the mishap.

Schadenfreude is not connected to the infliction of damage, a condition more aligned with antisocial behavior or sadism. Rather, the pleasure comes to an observer without his having caused it. Most often, the noticed bungle is minor or embarrassing rather than disastrous.

Examples might include someone slipping on a banana peel or a person finishing a speech and bouncing on his bottom because of a shifted chair. Spilling food, zippers unzipped, and bunched up backs of skirts revealing what is below and behind also come to mind. These are innocent enough to the extent they produce no long term harm, however excruciating they can be in the moment.

How about when the unfortunate one contracts a dreaded illness? This moves the amusement from the trivial or morally ambiguous to hatred and a desire to achieve justice or revenge. The happiness received by the witness is a bitter satisfaction, not a passing chuckle.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, described a similar attitude, one still closer to a premeditated desire to cause pain. The following appears in his On the Genealogy of Morality/Ecce Homo:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [….] Without cruelty there is no celebration.”

Yikes! Sentiments like this, if traced back far enough, speak to tribalism and the primitive, life-threatening conflicts of our ancestors. Indeed, part of what bonds some of us to our allies is the shared dislike of the “other,” taken to extremes in the form of hatred.

This topic cannot be escaped in the present. The degree to which some will go to foment physical confrontations and demonize those with whom they don’t agree is boundless.

But let’s consider other, less dreadful aspects of obtaining a mood boost from the pratfalls of our compatriots.

Brief levity at misfortunes outside ourselves might serve as an evolutionary safety valve. Each of us encounters his portion of disappointment, rudeness, and perceived unfairness. When an unkind superior dumps a drink on himself, smirking behind our hands can relieve us of a bit of our frustration. We believe he got what he deserved.

Without causing his spill, the scales of justice, at least for the moment, come closer to balance.

Unfortunately, those less than kind will use everyday humiliations they didn’t cause to belittle and mock, at least behind the back of another. Such discomfort can be turned to one’s advantage, boosting personal status by knocking a competitor down. A backstabber climbs over colleagues to advance himself. Again, here is a kind of cynical, acid satisfaction.

Cases like this put us in the arena of the playground bully disguised by the suit and tie he wears to work. The motives explaining his action might include compensation for a sense of inadequacy or envy.

Perhaps another aspect of our laughter comes from the need to make light of the small stuff of life, the near misses, the inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. Physical selves are such frail things. Unrequested comfort comes because others are in the same club and just as vulnerable.

The human form is like a tiny space ship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are always capable of surprises.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allow relief from a too dim view of the future. We even may learn how to prepare for those cosmic events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

A fun moment enjoyed with friends or colleagues, despite the temporary expense of the “the unlucky one,” steers our ship past worry about the vulnerability and mortality that are our lot.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as accomplishment and offspring who will speed our genes ahead in their own spacecraft.

Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?

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The top photo is Harold Lloyd, from his 1920 silent film High and Dizzy. The other image is a 3d digital illustration of a person with a smug face by Dawn Hudson. These are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The World Is Coming to a Beginning

A man none of us knew invited us inside his head. A gift you don’t get every day.

The fellow wasn’t asked to. Our adult education seminar was considering the definition of morality, when all of us witnessed the lowering of the drawbridge into the new acquaintance’s psyche. What we heard from him puzzled some; foolish or innocent or honorable they thought, depending …

The question before us was how society sets rules for acceptable behavior. In ancient Athens or America’s pre-Civil War South, disapproval did not attach to keeping slaves. As southern defenders noted, slavery is in the Bible, without condemnation.

“Good” is relative. Group allegiance matters. Killing the enemy, for example, is required in war-time; not at home in times of peace.

The recent classmate appeared unremarkable at first: slender, sandy hair, and the casual dress of retired folk. Another look, however, revealed weathered features, as if living had gotten the best of him.

He’d been in the Navy in early adulthood. Once home on leave — then temporarily a civilian again — time beckoned to contact old friends and revisit the world of flirtation and love. Or so he hoped.

After several days passed, his sister asked him how that was going.

“Not so well,” he said.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“Once I tell them I’m a sailor, they aren’t interested.”

“What don’t you tell them you’re an engineer? You are.”

“But I’m a sailor.”

Mariners of our antique time were not thought the most savory individuals. Moreover, when telling young women you are in the employ of your country, they understand you will soon be off to somewhere else: not an enticement toward prospective permanence.

One wondered, as his sister did, why he chose the disadvantageous identity over the no less accurate, more attractive one.

“I was a sailor, trained to value the corps over the self, the group over the person. I identified myself as a sailor first, as did all who served together. My particular job assignment came second. I couldn’t describe myself other than the way I did.”

One man in the class asked if that ever worked out — how he managed the dating business later on. Better after he left the military, he told us, but not the reason he left.

You might be thinking not all naval personnel live a celibate life for the service they honor. Or, you could be psychoanalyzing the ex-seaman, wondering if he used his allegiance to his mates as a way of inoculating himself against potential rejections that could otherwise have been taken as personal.

The young man didn’t use a common approach to meeting and mating, the kind we almost all employ almost all the time. We lead with our best qualities, tell our secrets and open our imperfections later, if at all. Assuming we admit them to ourselves.

A few classmates talked about this gentleman after the session. One found him too naïve and self-sacrificing; another admirable and principled, a third inflexible, impractical. Tribal allegiance came up, too, from a woman who thought the guy no different from the unthinking political types who always take their party’s side.

Perhaps you’ll be amused to hear another response. I mentioned the story to a charming, sixty-something divorcée not in school with us. When I finished, Sophia remained quiet for a bit, as if listening to an internal conversation with herself.

A moment later she asked, “Is he single?”

I said I didn’t know.

“OK. But find out. If he is, I’d like to meet him.”

——

The first image is called Sailor and Rum by Joe Machine. The one following is World War I German Sailor with an Iron Crescent (Medal). Finally, a portrait of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde. All three come from Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding Our Anger

Though I will never understand everything about the anger displayed in groups – the rage now surrounding us – I have some knowledge of how it developed. Early man discovered he needed allies against nature, beasts, and other humans. He sought the talents of partners in finding or building shelter, getting food, and providing comfort for fear and loneliness. Those who made their way alone were not likely to survive and, by definition, didn’t create offspring.

Allegiance to the small collective – call it loyalty – both was required by the group and increased your chances of outlasting isolated fellow-men. The band was more likely to thrive and your genes stood a better chance of reaching the next generation and beyond.

We became tribal creatures. Believing rumors of potential conspiracies by groups of competitors for scare resources was safer than thinking strangers meant well. Those who were different – other – were often enough enemies for us; we therefore become wary of all others. Not least, those who looked different and came from elsewhere: the people with odd customs, strange habits, who uttered unintelligible sounds. Rage enabled the fight to survive, to overcome our fear and take on threats. Thus supported and encouraged, everything became possible. Buoyed up by the group, small man became larger than himself.

Such qualities did not disappear from our nature. We now see them displayed even in so-called first world, “civilized” society. We vilify our political enemies. We are capable, as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images of our brain) show, of reacting to our fellow humans as we do to furniture. Untermenschen: less than human.

Yes, it is desperately important to vote, take the political action you can, voice your opinions, and make even small financial contributions to defend our democratic republic. Yes, some “others” are carried away. They yell and deceive and might want you out of the country. But not all do. Most, indeed, are rather like the rest of us: struggling with the life project, hoping our children will live in a better world, wishing for peace and security. If we lump them – all of them in the same trash bin, assume they are all irrational or crazy, are we then superior to them – really? If we succumb to our version of the same self-righteous anger, are we then superior to them – really? Do not assume all of our allies are pure. Our “team” is never the sole repository of virtue.

You will learn little from those who echo you. We might learn something from people who don’t, at least on occasion.

We would do well to search for solutions, some amount of compromise with those “others” who are open to it, and vigorously defend against the far smaller group of opportunists and the fully self-interested who only want what they want. Better policies than those now in place must address widely experienced concerns, not just those of your tribe. The country needs a better light bulb, otherwise replacing the present installation will leave us still in the dark.

Our genes won’t change any time soon.

Work for a better world, but do not become the thing you hate.

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The first image is a Cartoon Representation of the Molecular Structure of Protein Registered with 1pi1 Code. It was created by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformation Institute. The fMRI image below it is the work of Washington Irving. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.