It’s going to be 104 degrees on my back porch today and that makes me feel cranky. When the summer weather becomes extreme in Nebraska, I slow my activities. My brain slows down, too. I sleep later and want to go to bed earlier even though the sun lingers in the sky.
And I experience more schadenfreude.
A German Word
There is no equivalent word in English for schadenfreude. I found several definitions on the internet. The one that resonates with me is “delighting in others’ misfortune.”
Most of my friends agree that I’m not an ogre. I’ve never liked the comedy of the Three Stooges, smacking each other. I cringe at scenes in movies where one character sets up another to fail, only to make fun of him.
That said, I am a mother and every parent I know has said or thought this phrase at one time or another. “Just wait until YOU have children of your own.”
It’s not like we hope our children will fail. Okay, maybe occasionally we want them to learn a lesson “the hard way,” but only after they have argued that as parents “we don’t know what we’re talking about” and they are determined to ignore our fine counsel.
I’m not saying I want my toddler to fall off the dining room table and break her leg just because I’ve told her “a million times” not to climb up there to swing on the chandelier. On the contrary. When Kellini ignored my warnings, I put up a baby gate to block entry to the room until she was old enough to understand the consequences. I’d take no pleasure in lessons learned by way of a hard, plaster cast.
But I felt differently when my young teenager didn’t heed my message that she should be careful about sharing personal information, especially with a friend who had a history of revealing secrets. McKenna chose to ignore my advice because clearly her mother was “wrong” about her friend and the situation. Predictably, her BFF told everyone that my daughter liked a certain boy.
I experienced a bit of schadenfreude. Not because I like to watch my children suffer. I don’t. I’d rather they learn life’s hard lessons when the stakes are relatively low. McKenna cried those many years ago when her girlfriend betrayed her trust. Easier for her to learn from her mistakes when she’s young.
And I only relished in the schadenfreude for a moment or two.
Please don’t judge me.
It’s not like I’m the only person giving in to schadenfreude. Just last week I was speaking at a business meeting and I temporarily lost the thread of my thought. A colleague commented OUT LOUD how fun it was watching me get discombobulated.
I’m interested in human nature as it relates to society—but mostly as it relates to me. I also realize a better understanding of how people think and react can translate to writing stronger, more realistic fictional characters. So, later I examined my colleague’s reaction.
At times in this group, tensions have been stretched due to new, unfavorable policies. At first, I took offense at certain members’ reactions because I saw myself as an innocent party. After all, I didn’t create the new policy; I just reported it to the group.
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” became my internal mantra.
The episode of schadenfreude at the meeting prompted me to examine the situation from the member’s perspective. Not only was I the messenger, I was also the change agent. I am the administrator of the new policy—the enforcer—and nobody likes being told what to do.
On the other hand, in the same meeting, I experienced my own schadenfreude when one member chastised another for a mistake that might reflect negatively on the group. “Lilly,” the woman who was scolded hadn’t committed a felony. Certainly, a simple apology was all that was needed, although the offended party didn’t want to let Lilly off the hook that easily. I was relieved and just a little pleased that, for once, I wasn’t the target of the group’s discontent.
Does that make me a bad person?
Reasons for Schadenfreude
Scientific studies suggest one reason for schadenfreude has to do with how we see ourselves compared to others. The theory proposes that when people around us have bad luck, we look better to ourselves.
That wasn’t the reason for my twinge of delight at Lilly’s discomfort at the meeting. I wanted someone else to feel my pain. I wanted someone to empathize with me, to appreciate how tough my job can be. It felt good to stand aside for a few minutes while someone else wore the target.
Coming Full Circle
Recently, my husband Al and I had the privilege of taking care of three of our grandchildren for a week. Ages, 4, 5, and 7 the children are full of energy and well-behaved. They bring us much joy. And they are normal in that they have selective hearing.
They had no problem listening when we announced it was time to change into swim suits for a jump into the pool. But they were deaf when it was time to turn off the video to go to bed.
Their mother only laughed when Al told her of having to repeat orders. (He spent 22 years in the military and he prefers to give orders, expecting immediate action.)
I believe our daughter was exercising schadenfreude. How delightful it must have been for her to feel her father’s frustration. To have someone else to empathize with the challenges she faces daily with the children.
Brain-scanning studies show that schadenfreude is correlated with envy in some people. As a society, we seem to like it when bad things happen to rich people.
I didn’t need a scientific study to convince me. I turned to the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the scene where Ferris try to roll back the odometer of Cameron’s father’s car they have “borrowed” for the day. The audience gasps and then laughs when the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California slips off the jack, smashes backward through the plate glass window, falling three stories to crash on the forest floor below. Would it have been as funny if the boys had destroyed a rusted out Chevy Caprice?
Which event sparked more sales of the tabloids —the Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise wedding or the announcement of TomKat’s divorce?
Schadenfreude is most evident in politics. One party can’t wait to jump on the missteps of the other. It can become a crusade if a person’s favorite candidate is defeated. I’ve seen rational men root for the downfall of elected officials simply because they belong to the opposing side.
It’s really easy to use that popular phrase when a negative outcome we predicted comes to pass. Whether you say it or not, don’t you think, “Aha! I told you so!”
Really, is the outcome of a national election as important as the fate of … say, a baseball team? Of course, we want our favorite sports team to win. The Olympics will prove that over and over in the next couple of weeks. But to wish for the misfortune of a mayor, senator, or president based on our personal political beliefs—well isn’t that like what my grandmother used to say “cutting off your nose to spite your face?”
Wouldn’t it be better if we wished success to all U.S. elected officials whether or not we voted for them? Couldn’t we pull together for the short time the incumbent is in office? Try again at the next election while making the best of the current administration? Wouldn’t it be better for the world if we didn’t take such pleasure in the downfall of others?
I’ll try to control my schadenfreude if you try to suppress yours.
At least until the hot weather breaks.
Click the link below for the definition of schadenfreude.