“People love the fall of a righteous man.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
I am tired of schadenfreude.
Yesterday I took a long walk, husband and dog alongside. The Memphis temps are moderate for February, bikers and walkers abounding. A few convertibles make their topless debuts, and lots and lots of dogs. A young boy quick-leaves his bat and ball and runs across his yard to pet our mutt Joe, his father watching from behind home plate.
I see the beginnings of buds on trees, just making their plumpness known, not quite ready, still afraid of winter’s bite, but almost, hopeful. The daffodils in my yard are peeking upward, the beginning of their spring stretching. I see hints of yellow there, but just hints.
Winter will come back – it’s only early February – but a day like this reminds me of all things good, all things happy.
So on a day like this, I can forget how tired I am of schadenfreude.
My favorite novelist is Fyodor Dostoevsky, I think. He speaks of schadenfreude, although he doesn’t use the word as such. In his novel Crime and Punishment, the woman Pulcheria is in a destitute place – her own daughter Dunya is about to marry a wretched man for money in order to save her own family, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. At this point a prostitute named Sonya enters the story, a woman far more destitute even than Pulcheria and Dunya, dressed in the ostentatious garb of the Russian prostitute, and it is here the reader witnesses schadenfreude. Pulcheria-the-penniless mother is quietly glad Sonya has had such bad times, even looking down her nose and lowering her eyes at her, because this makes Pulcheria feel better about herself.
When someone has a hard time, we are often glad because we then feel better about ourselves and our situation. This is schadenfreude – gladness at the misfortune of others.
I have grown very tired of it.
The New Testament urges us to a higher lifestyle, a grander way of living – we are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep. What a beautiful way to live, so holy, this calling to the practice of selflessness. Compassion with a healthy dose of empathy.
But we miss it, so addicted to schadenfreude are we. Schadenfreude is just the opposite of this biblical calling – with schadenfreude, we rejoice when others fall and are angry or jealous when good fortune blesses them.
We are addicted to the delight in others’ misfortune. This is the exact opposite of peaceful living.
And it is so very ugly.
Society is full of it – social media reeks of it – television thrives on it. We love to see the fall of someone else because it means, for the moment, it’s not us.
Brian Williams comes to mind at the moment, and anybody else who falls from grace. I don’t know all the details of his story of “remembering” or “misremembering” his helicopter trip, and I am of course interested in proper and truthful reporting. But what Dostoevsky portrays in fiction, I daily watch unfold in fact: people sure do love to watch the fall of a man, because they then feel better about themselves.
Someone to mock and scorn, someone to look down on and gossip about, it’s almost irresistible.
Schadenfreude. How do I get away from it?
I am finding silence a respite from schadenfreude. I might not be able to stop the frenzied, selfish noise of the world, but I can control my own listening to it.
Turning the television off, closing the door of the Internet. I have control of this.
Being still and comfortable in the silence of the room where I read and on the paths on which I walk.
Feeling the unexpected warmth of the sun on my face on a February afternoon, stopping long enough to really feel it.
Walking with a student who weeps, a friend who grieves. Quiet walking, not talking or judging or trying to fix it. Just walking alongside and listening. Walking away from conversations filled with glee and judgment at the distresses of others. Just walking away.
Helping someone who will never help me in return.
Living smaller and quieter is helping me more than I ever thought possible.
I am learning to distance myself from schadenfreude, I want no part of it. I think this is New Testament teaching, I think this is what Jesus did.
I sit in quiet now to write, to listen to February birds sing noisy in the dawn. I envy them. I am quite sure there is no schadenfreude in the natural world. Just birds and squirrels and gophers building and creating, singing and chirping.
Certainly there is danger and death in the natural world, make no mistake, but no schadenfreude. No gladness of others’ misfortune.
What a beautiful place and state in which to dwell ~ I am trying to live there more and more.
I will learn more of this.