Schadenfreude- their damage, our joy

“What a fearful thing it is that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one, such a word is found….. In the Greek, Epikhairekakia,in the German, ‘Schadenfreude.’ “
This assertion, made by Richard C. Trench in 1852 is iconic, both in the beauty of its delivery and the relevance of its implications. Surely, you are already shaking your head in conviction, completely certain you are not guilty of this fleeting bout of sadism. However, before you are completely entrapped in your bog of self righteousness, take a moment to consider… that deep sense of satisfaction you feel watching dictators get over thrown and dragged through the streets, that smile you try to hide when the daughter of the ‘holiest’ sister in church is impregnated, the euphoria you experience when that ‘big girl’ snaps her heel and is publicly humiliated or the hearty laughter you have when the best player from your rival team breaks his leg… this brief spurt of delight you are undoubtedly now ashamed to have felt in these scenarios is officially known as Schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude, a German word literally translated to mean “Damage Joy”, is defined as a guilty, undisclosed feeling of satisfaction or pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. In most cases, this feeling is not a voluntary reaction, it is just a program written into the very core of our nature. Philosopher and sociologist, Theodor Adorno, described Schadenfreude as unexpected, pertinent but meaningless bliss at the suffering of others. The feeling is ingrained, forget about eradicating it- trust me your resolution would be shattered by the very next ‘oga at the top’ video.
Sadly, these sadistic bouts are not reserved only for people we don’t know. Family, friends, the dude with the highest C.G.P.A. are all potential objects of this unkind form of amusement. This should explain why your daughter’s answer to the question: “why did you come 4th this term?” is “daddy, Junior was 14th in his own class”. Now that I consider it, it also explains why my first words as a child were “ntoo” and “obii” and my first sentence was “that is good for you.”
So, why do we feel Schadenfreude?
According to Wilco W. van Dijk, a researcher on the subject, you feel Schadenfreude when you have something to gain from the misfortune of someone else (a slip-up by a rival in the office), when you are envious of such a person (the divorce of that popular actress you abhor) or when you feel he is deserving of whatever calamity has befallen him (think Gaddafi and the legion of ousted and disgraced dictators). Wilco linked Schadenfreude with low self esteem and based on findings from an experiment, he deduced that people with low self esteem would do almost anything to feel better. This gives them a high propensity to feel ‘damage joy’ when confronted with the misfortunes of other people.
It is too bad that this phenomenon shares a close relationship with self-esteem because the sad truth is that a large majority of people hide a deep rooted sense of insecurity and inadequacy. We feel we should be one rung higher up on the ladder– more beautiful, taller, smarter, richer or funnier. This feeling dumps us in a murky quagmire of misery—a dark place that only looks brighter whenever we see someone who is worse off. This is why the lynching of the unlucky cat-burglar attracts such large crowds. Nothing offers a better escape from the depressing implications of losing that contract or her ‘missed period’ than the sight of a stranger getting the nine lives beaten out of him.
Over the years, several issues regarding the nature of this phenomenon have been debated by the elite; is it purely reflex? Does it make a person evil? Is it caused by a hormone? If it is, how can such hormone be re-engineered to develop an antidote? The medieval church viewed it as pure sin but the scientific truth is we have all been guilty of this sin at some point in our lives, even as recently as the last time we watched ‘horrible celebrity meltdowns’ on E! Network. Personally, I will not crucify any one for feeling Schadenfreude. I believe we can all be forgiven for our private laughs at the expense of Mrs. Goody-two shoes or Mr. Know it all as long as the enjoyment isn’t completely devoid of empathy.
“We know it’s very good to feel empathy and sympathy for people, so if you feel Schadenfreude without any sympathy or compassion, that will not be good” Wilco said. I would add my opinion by saying if you feel ‘Freudefreude’—that is, a genuine and sincere joy at the good fortune of others then you are allowed to enjoy the occasional ‘mwa-hahaha’ moment. If, however, you share the sentiments of David Merrick who said: “it is simply not enough to succeed-others have to fail,” then by God you should grow a pointy beard, sprout curved horns, develop a forked tail, acquire a long fork and relocate to Hell! Like everything else in the world, Schadenfreude is quite harmless in small doses but when taken to the extreme, disaster might result.
Apart from the virtue of moderation, another important lesson to be learnt from this long winding write-up is this; we are all athletes in this ‘rat-race’ called life. In as much as we are doing everything to win the race, we should also show a little care for the very unfortunate sprinters that are lagging so far behind. The idea of people who are worse off should not only encourage us but also inspire us to do something to make the world better.
As a bonus lesson, also consider this; the human mind is simply a complex room, something akin to Alice’s wonderland. So, many contradicting elements, all of them existing side by side as neighbours. It can be a source of joy or it can be a recipe for disaster. In you lies a lion and a lamb, you can choose to pounce or prance. You can be Churchill or Hitler, Harry or Voldermort, Esther or Jezebel. Hero or a villain- the choice is yours.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s