02 April 2009

On Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude literally means 'sorrow-joy', and that pretty well defines it.

You might feel it when someone who has made your life a living hell finally 'gets theirs'...

but it's also what that person feels while he or she is making your life a living hell.

You might experience it when the student who bullies your child is held to account by someone in authority with guts and a spine...

but it's also what the bully feels when your child is humiliated or harmed in the bully's presence - especially if the bully manages to put your child 'in the wrong' with someone in authority who lacks either guts or a spine.

It's not one of the uplifting human emotions. It doesn't speak to the good in us. And it's dangerous to indulge, because anything that associates enmity with pleasure is toxic to the soul.

But if we live long enough, we're going to live through circumstances in which schadenfreude is the first, most appropriate response. Inescapably.

There are a few constructive things that can be done with this.

First - it's a feeling. And it's often a response to escape from abuse in one form or another. It exists in that context for a reason. We can properly rejoice in the escape as a separate thing from the 'payback'... as long as we remain focused on the escape.

Second - it's a message. The 'payback' is creating a strong emotional response for a reason. If we can focus on the reason, we can detach, emotionally, and 'disinvest' in the payback. This may happen in baby steps, but it can be done. And it can give us a better understanding of that particular abusive situation specifically. Which can help in understanding abuse in general.

Third - it's a warning.

As I noted above, people who escape abuse may feel schadenfreude as a result of that escape, especially when the abuser suffers appropriate consequences in some form. But abusers ALWAYS feel schadenfreude when their targets suffer, whenever the abuser can see that suffering. Whether the abuser has caused the specific suffering or not, they regard that suffering, in C.S. Lewis' words, as "a legitimate and pleasing refreshment" [Screwtape Letters].

And that is where the warning lies. We are human, and if we have been abused we have been wounded, and those wounds can - and often do - weaken us. It is human and understandable to experience relief when we escape abuse, and to have positive feelings about an abuser being 'brought to justice' in one way or another. But if we revel in this, if we begin to crave it, if we reach the point where we dream of revenge and fantasize about the abuser 'getting theirs', we are at serious risk of becoming the very same thing we so deplore. We have begun to dream of abusing the abusers.

See the abuser wallowing in Schadenfreude. There, but for the grace of God, go we. Our own Schadenfreude can remind us how frail and fallible we are, how sweet and seductive it is to hate, how easy it is to fall.

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