Eisenbud's Odyssey: Schadenfreude!

Scha·den·freu·de (pronounced: shahd-n-froi-duh). Definition: Satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune. Noun. German, from Schaden (damage) + Freude (joy).

Schadenfreud (photo credit: Thinkstock)
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
Ever since I developed a love and fascination for words, “schadenfreude” has topped my list of all-time favorites for its sheer power to succinctly convey a spot-on truism about human nature. You have to give it to the Germans: If nothing else, they are masters of efficiency in everything from engineering to genocide to language. God bless them.
Although schadenfreude is technically a noun, I always considered it to be a verb because of the decidedly active – albeit negative – emotions it engenders (hence my added exclamation point). Indeed, schadenfreude is very much a feeling – and a powerful one at that – that for many, unfortunately, is akin to an orgasm.
The great Mark Twain once said, “I could live for two months on a good compliment.” Sadly, for many, the same could be said about a good dose of schadenfreude. To be sure, it is the armpit of human emotion.
I still remember the first time schadenfreude got its ugly clutches on me.
I was 10 years old and in love with a girl in my class named Heather who had her heart set on the better looking and more athletic Mikey, who had six-pack abs and perfectly straight teeth. With my love handles and orthodontia nightmare, I knew I could never meaningfully compete with him on a level playing field.
Then, one day, Mikey tearfully informed our class that his father was being relocated to another state, far away, where he and the rest of his family would have to join him. This devastated Mikey and Heather for obvious reasons, and delighted Danny (me) for less pure ones.
After Mikey left town a few weeks later, I took it upon myself to comfort the fair-haired Heather with endless packs of strawberry Bubble Yum, grape Nerds and a colorful array of butterfly stickers for her awesome collection, until she finally succumbed to my charms.
We became boyfriend and girlfriend, and life was great. That is, until I learned that my father was also being relocated to a state far away, where my family and I would have to join him. (This is also around the time I learned about the word “karma,” but that’s a different column altogether.)
No doubt, another boy with designs on Heather felt on top of the world the day I moved away, never to return. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?
Needless to say, this childish manifestation of schadenfreude was relatively harmless, and in my prepubescent mind appeared justified. However, as I grew older I quickly learned about its inherently evil and dark gravitational pull.
Indeed, the ubiquity of schadenfreude within society cannot be denied, which speaks volumes about the unsightly underbelly of human nature.
Certainly schadenfreude has its place when it comes to the evil among us who get what’s coming to them – Adolf Eichmann, Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi are just a few of the many infamous names that come to mind. But to support the downfall and misfortunes of other otherwise decent individuals is definitively toxic.
Empirically speaking, I have found that those who delight in the pain of respectable people are almost without exception deeply insecure – possessing self-esteem that is predicated on the misery of others – even including family, friends and those they’ve never met.
SCHADENFREUDE MANIFESTS itself in countless ways within society, both consciously and subconsciously, and single-handedly keeps the gossip and reality show industries recession-proof, multibillion-dollar enterprises by turning human misery into gold.
From highly publicized divorces, infidelities, bankruptcies, deaths, drug addictions, lurid accusations and general meltdowns – to more provincial neighborhood and professional gossip – it continues to serve as a guilty pleasure for many, on par with eating an entire box of doughnuts in one sitting.
And like overindulging on doughnuts, it too has serious consequences – not on the body, but on the soul and society itself.
In short, schadenfreude turns the problems of real, fragile people into inappropriately titillating and salacious sporting events, akin to The Hunger Games, by captivating an audience perpetually demanding to be entertained by anything that makes them feel better about their own lives.
Indeed, talk-show host luminaries like Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich et al. – and every other bush-league reality show spawned since them – have gleefully set the gold standard for this ugly phenomenon, and lined their pockets with profits derived by the misery of their “stars,” whom audiences would religiously tune in to watch fight, cry and generally humiliate themselves for a quick fix of faux self-empowerment.
Hell, I can still remember excitedly watching any given Barbara Walters Special with my mom in the ‘90s and placing bets on when Walters would make the celebrity she was interviewing cry about something that was absolutely none of her, or our, business – all the while maintaining a disturbingly ersatz motherly concern.
It was, and still is, shameful – and always drew enormous ratings, because Walters knew exactly what the people wanted. And it has made her very rich.
TO BE fair, there was a period in my late 20s when I developed a somewhat inverted form of schadenfreude, whereby I felt saddened by the success of others, which ultimately is just as bad and toxic.
Whenever a friend or colleague achieved a modicum of success I internalized their accomplishments as a failure on my part. And while I congratulated each of them, in my heart I felt like a lesser man.
When it finally dawned on me that the corollary between the degree of others’ successes and my inflamed insecurities maintained near mathematical precision, I knew I needed to radically reevaluate my unhealthy way of thinking, which, thankfully, I did.
Of course, schadenfreude is in no way limited to the confines of popular culture or professional settings, and can frequently be found within families and circles of friends – men and women who secretly delight in the failures of their loved ones.
In fact, I’m convinced that half the people on Facebook obsessively check the profiles of their “friends” – the majority of whom they never talk to or intend to see – on the off chance they might have changed their statuses to “divorced” or posted unflattering photos that show they’ve gained an enormous amount of weight, gone bald, married a unattractive partner, or just generally peaked in high school.
The ugly truth is that this phenomenon unquestionably exists in epidemic proportions, and has made Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire, many times over. Sure, Zuckerberg would like you to believe Facebook is strictly a respectable utilitarian device responsible for the success of the Arab Spring and keeping families and friends in touch, and he’s partially right.
But my guess is that he knows all too well that the vast majority of his bread and butter is more or less based on the unfriendly and unseemly voyeuristic tendencies of his millions of subscribers.
THEREFORE, THE inescapable question becomes: What can we do about this mess?
After all, every time we go to a gossip website to read about the latest celebrity derailment, tune into a reality shows that gleefully promote a cast member’s undoing, or simply take part in gossip, we spit in the face of everything we teach our children not to do.
However, could you imagine a society where men and women derived no such pleasure from the malaise of their counterparts, and instead were overcome with empathy and compassion when they needed help? Actual humanity, that is frequently paid little more than lip service?
In this inglorious rat race that is life, wouldn’t it be something if instead of subconsciously or consciously rooting for each other’s failure we reversed the equation, and actually derived pleasure and inspiration in other people’s triumphs?
You may think that I have an acute case of Pollyanna Syndrome, but I can assure you, I have seen the world through schadenfreude-tainted glasses, and it’s a cheap and ugly vision that leaves everyone with blemished minds and souls.
Again, schadenfreude has its place in special cases involving horrible people, but when it becomes a default mode for all people, we clearly have a problem.
Just think about it.
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