Schadenfreude

Indulge me. Although my patient wife and editor exhorts me not to use arcane words, but to write in simple declarative English sentences, I am going to declare a holiday from Strunk and White writing and indulge myself.

“Schadenfreude,” there I said it. Schadenfreude is the frisson—that would be a tremor of sensual pleasure—one gets when one hears of another’s grievous misfortune.

There is good and bad schadenfreude. Bad schadenfreude is the perverse pleasure one experiences at another’s genuine misfortune. Good schadenfreude is the natural delight one feel’s when an arrogant, pompous fool tumbles from grace.

I’ve been experiencing a lot of the good kind recently even though my higher instincts demand empathy and forgiveness instead of delight, but, alas, I am only human.

I confess that when a wanna-be Old Testament legislator in a cheap suit from one of the rectangular states rails in homey rhetoric invoking his personal God against gays, intellectual elites, gun control advocates, science or foreign infidels and is later found on the frequent flier roster at some tony escort service, the polite term for a brothel, I enjoy a tremor of sheer delight.

Or when a hortatory politician rewrites history and the English language to have us believe that an abdication of constitutional rights and guarantees is necessary to protect us from “them,” or propounds an incandescent argument for not taxing wealth in order to create opportunity for the poor and is then found to have cheated on his own tax returns, I get all warm and fuzzy and know deep in my soul that the God I was raised with has a wonderful sense of humor.

The fact that Mary Cheney is Dick Cheney’s daughter has elements of schadenfreude, not because Cheney is antigay, because he isn’t, but because of his administration’s efforts to put forth a constitutional amendment to protect marriage from “them.”

What makes it OK to delight in the misfortune of another? The answer lies in the demeanor of the person talking. As the Bible makes clear in Proverbs “Pride goeth before a fall.” The really genuine tragedies unraveling around the world in Baghdad, in the Sahel region of Africa, in Kansas, New Orleans are heartbreaking, effecting modest people trying to make their way in a difficult life. There is no delight here.

Sadly, it’s now clear that President Bush’s carefully orchestrated “Mission Accomplished” photo-op was a classic schadenfreude moment. It typified smug, self-satisfied arrogance, but, unfortunately, it was followed by a fall of truly tragic proportions that included not only the person for whom the photo was taken but our armed forces, Iraqi citizens and the Middle East region in general.

So when you feel that tremor of delight at someone’s misfortune, you must look deep into yourself and ask whether your delight is appropriate or whether it is misplaced. If it is appropriate, it is usually also funny. If it is inappropriate, you may need help.

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