Schadenfreude’s Little Sister
We have to fight the temptation to fixate on darkness and want the darkness to be darker still.
Been thinking a lot lately about something I can only describe as schadenfreude’s little sister.
You know schadenfreude, right? Such a fantastic word. (Thank you, German!) It is satisfaction and pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.
That wry smile that comes over your face when the jerk you can’t stand gets what’s coming to him. The interior “Yes!” you feel when someone you think is a total schmuck gets his well-earned comeuppance. It’s also just the thoughtless and heartless cheering over a stranger’s bad luck because it amuses us and makes us feel superior.
I’d bet we’ve all experienced schadenfreude to some degree, because we’re all human. It is, however, a sinful disposition, and one that requires confession and repentance. Charity asks better of us. Do not indulge yourself in schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude’s Little Sister
You and I should take heed that we don’t also indulge in her little sister: the stinginess of heart that makes us reluctant, even unwilling, to acknowledge the goodness in our “enemies.” The miserliness of spirit that makes us double-down and refuse to admit that someone we dislike is perhaps not as bad as we thought. Or at least not quite guilty of what we thought. Or not so unlike ourselves in many ways.
Take a look out there and it’s obvious that many, many people are determined to see the worst in others. Not just see the worst, but pronounce the worst, and then sentence the other in the harshest manner. How often do we see someone take a second look, or really listen to an opponent’s argument and say, “I hear what you’re saying”?
How often does someone say to another, “There’s more merit in your position than I thought”? Even if we still ultimately disagree with the other, is it not possible to even try to give the benefit of the doubt? To at least listen without hearing through our own filter of dislike and obstinance?
There are many substantive issues about which we can heartily and legitimately disagree. There are many moral issues about which there is objective right and wrong, and never the twain shall get together for coffee. Even then, we are still called to charity and as much patience as we can muster. Truth and love must be inseparable, along with truth and mercy.
‘I Was Wrong’
We are obliged to acknowledge when we too harshly judged another, or flat-out wrongly judged another’s position or beliefs. A civil society of mature people requires the ability to say, “This person is not as bad as I thought. I was wrong.”
G.K. Chesterton said it beautifully:
There is nothing so satisfactory as finding that some man is better than we thought; there is no sensation so pleasant to a generous spirit as being convicted of calumny. — G.K. Chesterton, Daily News (London), June 26, 1901
What a thought — to be pleased to discover we have been proved wrong about someone. Let’s strive for generosity in spirit as far as we possibly can.
The Horrible Alternative
The alternative is simply horrible for everyone, and our poor nation is headed there too quickly.
But of course, the nation is made up of individuals, and it’s the individual who must choose how to behave, how to think, how to treat his neighbor and even his enemy.
C.S. Lewis illuminates it for us:
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose something turns up that suggests that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
Now, generosity of spirit on your part will be to not read the above and inject racism into it, since neither Lewis nor I mean anything of the sort. Alrighty? Good.
We have to fight the temptation to fixate on darkness and want the darkness to be darker still; to wish the filthy were even filthier. We will end up corrupting every spot of goodness we find, until even goodness itself is despised by us.
Send schadenfreude and her stingy little sister packing.