In the line at the grocery store yesterday, It was impossible to avoid the bold headlines of one of America’s more popular rags. It trumpeted that after four months of marriage George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin are headed for a 200 million dollar divorce after countless screaming fights. Seeing this “news” placed so unavoidably in the checkout line made me sick to my stomach.
First, it could well be sensationalistic speculation, a distorted spin that feeds people’s schadenfreude: the joy and pleasure felt at other people’s misfortunes. But even if it is true, it means that two human beings are in a world of pain right now, and to exploit that pain to sell papers and to titillate ungenerous hearts seems unkind to the point of viciousness.
Schadenfreude is countered by the Buddhist virtue of joy, or “mudita” in Sanskrit. This is not a Snoopy-at-supper-time giddy dance, but simply rejoicing in the happiness of other beings. It seems obvious that a loving heart embodies compassion and empathy for the fact that we are all fighting a very hard battle, as the popular quote has it. A great example of schadenfreude is the Grinch, whose “heart was two sizes too small.” He was ticked off at the joy of Christmas, and did all he could to ruin it. In the case of Clooney/Alamuddin, the vicarious hit of a glamorous marriage quickly gave way to envy in hearts too small.
I realize that tiny hearts are in pain themselves, and perhaps rejoicing in other’s misfortunes eases that pain a bit. I know from experience that when I have acted with negativity or judgment or anger, it has always been from a place of pain in myself, and not from a place of open, confident love. It simply strikes me as terribly sad that millions of people have Grinch-like hearts, at least enough of the time that papers can make so much money pandering to the need to feed on another’s pain.
I also find comfort in the knowledge that millions of people long to be kind, as George Saunders said at Syracuse University: “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” Saunders is encouraging, however, in his reassurance that kindness, while difficult, is a deeply natural part of human growth:
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being. Again, Saunders put this powerfully:
“That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”