One of the most wonderful words to describe an emotion that is so poorly thought of by every tradition is schadenfreude. To my ear, it sounds onomatopoeic, a gentle hush with a chilling twist at the end, like an assassin’s blade. Schadenfreude can be most simply defined as taking pleasure in the misfortune of others and more broadly envy at others’ good fortune. Or I’m glad it’s not me! Another terrific phrase with much the same meaning is morose delectation, the compulsive enjoyment of an evil thought, as if one kept running one’s tongue over a broken tooth. But I’ll stick with schadenfreude.
The relevance of schadenfreude to those of us with chronic illness and disability is considerable. There may be times, after all, when we are jealous of what others can do that we cannot, take vacations, for example, or be able to get together in places that are not handicap friendly, or make arrangements in a fraction of the time we need to plan.
We may act out by being critical of our friends’ destinations or reluctant to hear their tales. What’s the big deal we may say to ourselves, imagining that we see our little world in greater depth and proud that we have such a small carbon footprint compared to the mileage others put on on their sky polluting flights.
Of course, the motivation behind the thought is less from environmental concern and more a “passive aggressive” jealousy for their particular good time out of our reach. We also might harbor a secret smile that the weather was not as warm for them as anticipated. Surely, if asked and after a moment of self reflection, we would not wish our friends bad luck, but there are occasions enough when we may have a quick flash of thanks that they, not we, are victims of ill fortune.
It is no different than the reluctance some may feel at visiting another couple of family who seems happier, healthier, better off in some way than our own. And at times, we direct this feeling toward ourselves rather than others and feel depressed or self-critical. In the early years of my illness when I could not bike or walk longer distances, I did not enjoy sunny weekends. I preferred clouds or rain huddled in a corner with unconscious self-pity. An excerpt from one of my earliest ms related poems, “Exacerbation,” expresses a touch of what I felt.
I’ll admit it. I was scared, dragged back
to the early days when humbled by illness,
I envied the doings of the careless, confident striders
among the well, the healthy Houdinis unshackled by time
who swiveled on bikes with a kid’s ease
counting circles of knee and wheel to race home.
In Catholic tradition, to sin against the holy spirit was a most grievous, if not unforgivable, fault. As I explored this idea that I had always vaguely associated with schadenfreude, I see that it was initially envy of a companion’s spiritual progress. How many “spiritual” communities, churches, fellowships are not filled with this? As is true with so much of what takes place in ourselves, there is a tension between the animals we are and the humans we wish to be.
How apt that neurological studies show that strong feelings of envy stimulated physical pain nodes and reward areas were turned on by learning that the envied had suffered misfortune. In fact, brain imaging reveals a significant correlation between envy and schadenfreude. I suggest that it is possible to be addicted to schadenfreude.
Clearly schadenfreude drives us away from other people. For some of us it is harder, for others easier, to not be ensnared by envy, gloating, or the self-indulgence of unnecessary comparison with another’s life. Krishnamurti spoke frequently about how ill served we are by comparison with others. In addition to not truly knowing their lives and struggles:
If I am always comparing myself …what has happened to me—what have I done? I only compare in order to gain, in order to achieve, in order to become—but when I don’t compare I am beginning to understand what I am. Beginning to understand what I am is far more fascinating, far more interesting; it goes beyond all this stupid comparison.
And from a Buddhist perspective, one of the ten meritorious deeds is to rejoice in the worthy accomplishments of others. Indeed I have learned there is a word, compersion, for feeling pleasure in others pleasure. We can even become enthusiastic for our well or able bodied friends, that is en-theos, filled with the spirit of God and good. I am so glad for you! And that is not a bad thought to have.