There are feelings and experiences that sometimes English just doesn’t have a word for, and another language does; so we import it. One of these imports is the German word schadenfreude (pronounced SHAH-den-froydeh), which means — as best we can translate it into English — pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.
Oh, come on, you might be saying, that’s not right. I never feel this way.
Oh yeah? What better country to feel schadenfreude in than the U.S., where we pride ourselves on equality, where we have no royalty, and where extreme differences in wealth can drive us crazy. Who doesn’t feel just a little bit good, if not a lot, when they hear that someone who has bragged about how much money he has, loses it all?
Well, maybe if he loses it all, you might feel sorry for him, but how about his losing at least half of it?
Or really, how do you feel when your kid is struggling in school and you see one of those bumper stickers that says, “My child is an honor student”? Don’t you already not like the kid? I’m not saying you’d go so far as to put one of those stickers on your car that says “My child beat up your honor student,” but wouldn’t you like to hear that their honor student flunked at least one course? (Actually, there are many websites offering bumper stickers that make fun of the honor student one, showing that many of us are sick and tired of parental bragging.)
Buddhism says it best when it reminds us that we are all suffering. As human beings, it’s what we do. We don’t necessarily want other people to suffer more than we do, but we certainly don’t want them to suffer less. Think about it. How do you feel when someone goes on and on about how great his or her life is? What are you supposed to say when a friend says, “My stock portfolio was up 10% last year, and my daughter just graduated from medical school!” while your stock portfolio just dropped 20% and your son is living in your basement playing video games?
Sure, you might say to the friend, “That’s great!” but what you want to say is “Will you please shut up?”
Actually, the nice thing about someone else going through some suffering is that you can come across as a nice guy. Just because you are secretly delighted that your colleague’s book proposal has just been rejected by 10 agents (just like yours was), you don’t have to say that. You can say, “I’m so sorry. I thought your idea was great.”
Now I feel so guilty saying this, but recently I experienced a bit of schadenfreude when I read of the passing of someone I’d gone to college with. He had lived right across the hall from me freshman year, and while we were from the same part of Queens and were both Jewish, we otherwise could not have been more different. He was simply “cool,” and I was not.
I remember that when we “rushed” fraternities on campus, none of them were interested in me while every one of them wanted him. I didn’t really understand it. Why should skinniness, a terrible case of acne, and a complete lack of social poise get in my way? Why should his good looks and verbal smoothness mean anything?
He wasn’t really unfriendly, but he and his cool friends couldn’t help but occasionally make fun of me. By my second year, when he had moved into a fraternity house and I had simply moved on to another dorm, I kind of lost track of him.
But then later, in alumni publications, I saw that he had become very successful. He had gone to Harvard Law School and started his own law firm. Also, for a few years he was a major contributor to the university from which we had both graduated. I was in the category labeled “contributor” or something like that, along with the hundreds of other alumni who gave between $10 and $100. He was in a category with one or two other people, those who had given many thousands.
And then a couple of years ago, I picked up the alumni magazine, and found that he had died — of a heart attack. I hate to admit this, but my first thought after “Wow, Dave Bernstein died! (not his real name, of course),” was “Okay, Dave, who’s the cooler guy now?”
Recently, I Googled him and found that he had been married for more than 40 years and had also left a son, daughter, and three grandchildren. It sounded like he had turned out to be a pretty good guy. It wasn’t his fault that way back when we were young he had blemish-free skin and was so cool. And he and his friends making fun of me once in a while? We were just teenagers in the freshman dorm, and that’s what teenagers did.
Ah, now I can feel guilty, something I am so much more comfortable with than schadenfreude.