Yesterday I wrote an essay on Schadenfreude that was occasioned by the front page of a grocery line newspaper trumpeting the difficulties in the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin. I was shocked by what I judged as a cynical intrusion into the pain of other human beings, and I excoriated the paper and those who fed on its patent sensationalism. I went so far as to condemn the paper for exploiting “pain to titillate ungenerous hearts” and that this seemed “unkind to the point of viciousness.” After unloading my own pain at what I had judged as the uncaring and selfish behavior of other people, I did my best to turn toward compassion, quoting a wonderful talk given by George Saunders in a graduation talk at Syracuse University. His theme was kindness, and the fact that the beauty in every heart can become covered over by self-centeredness and a lack of empathy.
My post prompted this caring and insightful comment by Michael who writes a lovely blog called Embracing Forever. Michael managed to dolly back to a point of broad perspective that tempered my negativity far more effectively than I had. Here are his words:
“Great post, John. Reading this, I realize I need to watch Saunders’ speech all over again…! In reflecting on this concept of schadenfreude, and your thoughts on reading the tabloids in the supermarket aisle, it struck me that perhaps not everyone who buys that magazine is doing so out of schadenfreude. Perhaps there are others whose “life dial” is turned down to pretty low volume, and that through reading about and vicariously connecting with these “larger than life” idols and pop stars, they experience or touch something that may be felt to be missing in their own lives.
There may, for instance, be a whole segment of the market who purchases those tabloids who are crying with George and Amal, who are not happy at all, but feel as though they, too, have lost something. The fairy tale has ended. It’s just a bit of a projection on my part– a leap. But it does come back also to what you describe, nonetheless, to pain that we feel. To some fear or sense of inadequacy that suggests others are in better position to live and express the meaning of life than we are, others who have more to offer, more gifts or talents, more potency of what matters. And what could be farther from the truth?
It is sad, as you wrote: “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.” It is sad that so many, whether in schadenfreude or lack of esteem or self-worth– for whatever reason– have come to rely on vicarious projection as the generator of life experience, as the generator of emotional fodder.
There is so much within that is missed in these projections, but also… perhaps it is merely kept safe until we are ready to truly go there…”
I find Michael’s words beautifully wise and kind, and although I am sure he did not intend this result, his thoughts encouraged me to reflect upon my own (hopefully brief) foray into the land of negative judgments. I would like to share three ideas:
1. There is a thin line between “judgment” and “discernment.” Surely the world is not ideal. Michael and I meet in the sadness we feel at the pain in the hearts of so many people that sometimes leads to unconscious and unkind words and deeds. But it is not only wiser, but more effective, to greet the less-than-ideal with understanding and compassion. Harsh negative judgments only drive the unconsciousness more deeply into the psyche. “Only love turns away anger” says the Buddha, and the same is true of all pain, including that expressed as schadenfreude.
2. I have always found St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:1 both enlightening and a shade poignant: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” This is more than the beam of wood in your own eye while judging the mote of dust in another’s. For I not only occasionally do the things that I judge, but it seems to me that in the very act of judging, I am doing what I condemn. While I am railing at another’s unkindness, I am being unkind. When I condemn another for lacking compassion, my words lack compassion. And when I judge other people for seeming to enjoy the pain of another, I am finding relief in my own supposed “superiority.” I am afraid St. Paul has a point: in judging others, I judge myself. In fact, what do I really know about another person? Whatever i say about another says far more about me: my degree of wisdom and compassion, my array of values.
3. Finally, i want to remember to view my own negativity with compassion. That tabloid cover really jolted me, and I felt great empathy for Mr. Clooney and Ms. Alamuddin. Having gone through some of that pain myself, I felt a great investment in treating their travails with kindness and respect. As I noted in another post, even Jesus had his moments of impatience and harsh judgments. I think we can use those moments when we miss the mark to increase our understanding and our self-knowledge. As Rumi teaches, every movement of our minds and hearts–whether saintly or selfish– is a gift:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.