Monday, April 26, 2010


I was calmly eating with a friend of mine at a deli-type restaurant and a waitress goes by with a tray full of glasses and coffee cups that she had just bussed from a table. A woman's purse lay in a place that was unexpected and as the waitress rushed past the table she caught the purse. You can guess what happened: the glasses and cups made a loud crash as they broke into a million pieces, the silverware added a light percussion as they bounced, and the cry of surprise seemed to echo in the deli. Everyone heard it and some gasped, some had a direct inhalation of air until they found she was okay, others helped her up, but some, and not just a few, some cheered and applauded.

In a Simpson's episode Ned Flander's business is failing and Lisa has to explain to Homer that he is feeling "schadenfreude" a German word for taking pleasure in the suffering of others. The Broadway show Avenue Q sings of schadenfreude as "me being glad that I am not YOU!" and "Don't you feel all warm and cozy when you see people out in the rain." Homer remarks, "Those Germans have a word for everything!"

Solomon, in Proverbs tells us "Do not gloat when you enemy falls; when he stumbles do not rejoice or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him." We know it is wrong and we often feel guilty about it but there is something in us that celebrates when an enemy falls.

The Greeks had the concept pegged as "epikhairekakos" which means taking pleasure in another's ill fortune. But they also had the opposite but SAME response of "phthonos" when means getting pain from another's GOOD fortune.

Wow ... I just realized that was a broad brush stroke from the Simpsons to Broadway to German to Ancient Hebrew poetry and finally to Ancient Greek philosophy ... all because a waitress dropped her tray. But I think that just proves how prevalent schadenfreude is. EVERYBODY deals with it.

Our nature tends to lift ourselves through denigrating others. We feel better about ourselves because others are worse off. Or we are upset because others have good things happening to them. But we are not animals, we can fight our nature. We can decide to help the waitress. We can decide to rejoice in the good things of others. We can decide to shove schadenfreude to the shelf and live a life of joy not matter the circumstances. We CAN decide. I think it is called fahrvergnuegen ... those Germans have a word for everything.

No comments: