Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Guilty Pleasure

I love the word "Schadenfreude"

(Before you jump on my misspelling, I looked it up, and there are six or seven ways to spell this word. I split the difference.)

Anyway, I love the word. I love the idea that there is actually a word for the feeling of joy you get from other people's misfortune. I love that the word is German, which seems particularly appropriate. I love that I'm not the only one who gets this feeling.

I just wish there was a word for the guilt you get from taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Let me give you an example, as it's been on my mind a lot lately.

My mother died in 1991, and my father died in 1993. I was 21 when my father died, and one of his last wishes was that I adopt my youngest sister, Ella, who was nine. Needless to say, this required a lot of changes in my life, but it was my father's wish. Anyway, family is family.

So, long story short, Ella and I chugged along fairly merrily for nine years, until she graduated from high school and went off to study Art at a University in Richmond. There were some difficult times along the way--we were homeless for a brief time (we stayed with a friend of mine), and I had to drop out of school to work a few jobs while I got our situation stabilized. At any rate, though, we made it.

One of the down sides to being a 21 year old male taking care of a nine year old girl is the various disturbing conclusions that people draw about the situation. This made me a bit paranoid. It didn't help that I had a strained relationship with my eldest sister, who was about two years younger than me and married. It really didn't help that her brother-in-law, John, who I knew quite well, took it upon himself to report that I had bought a keg for my youngest sister.

This, by the way, was the product of a joke. When I was 27, and our situation was completely stable, I hosted a graduate student Halloween party at my house. Given that the English Graduate students were a bunch of total lightweights, most of a pony keg that we had purchased was left over after the party. A week later, when my brother-in-law came to visit, the keg was still there. He asked about it, and Ella and I joked that I had bought it for her. Given that she suffered liver damage as an infant, it was pretty obvious that this was a joke. Added to this was the fact that I subsequently told him about the Graduate Students' party.

ANYWAY, John decided to tell my conservative sister that I was buying alcohol for my underage, liver-damaged sister. This would have been funny had my sister decided to talk to me about it. Instead, she kept it secret while she tried to decide who to report me to. When I found out about the whole situation, I went ballistic. After an extended e-mail exchange, I severed contact with my sister. I also confronted John and subsequently severed contact with him. After a year, I reestablished my relationship with my married sister. I have never reestablished contact with John. While I (intellectually) recognize that my scorched-earth policy was a little severe, I felt that I couldn't risk endangering my situation with Ella. Had my sister called her mother-in-law with John's story, Ella would have been taken away, and I would have been presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Part of my anger came from the fact that John discussed this behind my back. Part of it came from the fact that he was high-handed when I confronted him about it. My biggest problem, though, was that Ella and I had taken him under our wing. Although he worked in our town, John lived about an hour away, and his wife was on rotation in another city. We often put him up, made dinner for him, and visited him at work. In other words, we treated him like family, which made the whole situation particularly painful.

At any rate, my eldest sister and I now have a pretty good relationship, and she occasionally gives me updates on John. Recently, I found out that he now suffers from crippling depression. It has caused him to miss a lot of work, has put a strain on his marriage, and generally seems to be making his life hellish. He has tried a lot of different drugs, individually and in combination, and still hasn't managed to regain functionality.

Now, generally, I have a warm spot in my heart for the needs of every living being, etc., etc. However, in the case of John, I make a huge exception. In spite of myself, I can't help but rejoice in his misery. Every time I think about his situation, a grinchy little grin creeps across my face. I feel somewhat guilty for the warm, fuzzy feeling that his torment gives me, but I can't overcome the actual joy I feel. More to the point, I can't escape the words that keep floating through my brain:

"That's what you get for fuckin' with me."

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  • Frankly, I don't care how you spell 'Schadenfreude' if you get to savor it. The Russians say that revenge is a dish best served cold. In John's case, why would you care if he burns or freezes? Not that I have an opinion, mind you.

    By Blogger The CEO, At December 20, 2006 at 11:25 PM  

  • Doing my best not to f*ck with you.

    By Blogger mist1, At December 21, 2006 at 12:28 AM  

  • Have you read the book "A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genious"? If not...I think you could REALLY relate.

    By Blogger Nihilistic, At December 21, 2006 at 1:30 AM  

  • I find the hate to be refreshing.

    By Blogger El Guapo in DC, At December 21, 2006 at 2:12 AM  

  • After all you are a human only! Personally I find revenge very sweet. But still it is not a good thing for either person. You could try going neutral on John instead of negative. But then that is like advising to be a saint.

    By Blogger ramo, At December 21, 2006 at 2:42 AM  

  • Isnt Karma fucking wonderful!?!

    Although if someone did that to me? Id be plotting my revenge for years and carrying it out either on the ultimate high of his life or breaking through the barrell either way Id have the exact attidue to hearing how much of a mess his life is at the moment..

    By Blogger Judith, At December 21, 2006 at 4:31 AM  

  • CEO-
    Of course, in Russia, isn't almost everything served cold? Except, of course, for tea.

    You make a good point. The opposite of love is ambivalence, not hate. I'm not there yet. I still wish him ill.

    Wise choice ;-).

    I started to read it, but quickly decided that I wanted to kill Dave Eggers. I never went back.

    El Guapo-
    Good to see you! Yeah, it feels disturbingly good.

    Neutral is what I aspire to. Evil delight, though, is what I feel.

    It's nice to know that I'm not the only evil one! Thank you!

    By Blogger Crankster, At December 21, 2006 at 9:40 AM  

  • Karma - love it. and on a side note: what a good brother you are!!! :)

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At December 21, 2006 at 11:43 AM  

  • There are a few people in my life that I would feel like that about....I'm no longer in touch with any of them....I just hope Karma bites them in the ass too.
    And you know...that is really awesome that you took your sis in...awesome!

    By Blogger Claudia, At December 21, 2006 at 11:47 AM  

  • Well, first of all Crankster, I can't even pronounce that damn word, much less spell it so I'll take your word for it being correct.

    Secondly, you did exactly what I would have done with John and you now feel the same way I would as well. Especially after you've struggled so hard trying to raise your youngest sister and to have someone question your ethics? Wow....

    Kudos to you bud, wallow in satisfaction is what I say...

    By Anonymous Slick, At December 21, 2006 at 12:47 PM  

  • I personally have found that it is more satisfying when life takes revenge for you. Call it karma, call it whatever you want, but the dish of revenge tastes best when guilt is in short supply. Since you didn't do anything to harm John, I say enjoy your good fortunate and take satisfaction knowing that being a good person does pay off. I know I would.

    By Blogger rhapsody, At December 21, 2006 at 8:52 PM  

  • Olives-
    Karma kicks ass, doesn't she?

    The great thing about my married sister is that she makes it possible for me to keep tabs on John without ever having to see or hear from him.

    Thanks! I'll try to wallow. Wait--that sounds wrong.

    You're right. I need to get over the idea that I'm responsible for his miserable life, and just enjoy the fact that it's sucking for him.

    By Blogger Crankster, At December 21, 2006 at 10:38 PM  

  • This is a great post--it's specific to you but makes great points about all of us. Yes, those Germans have some amazing concept-encompassing words...I like Gotterdamerung, "the dusk of the Gods." And that pretty much sums up my knowledge of the German language.

    By Blogger Jocelyn, At December 22, 2006 at 10:47 AM  

  • "What goes around, comes around"....hehehe....
    You did good though and bless you for taking care of your baby sister....I had a big brother who didn't...:-(


    By Blogger Odat, At December 22, 2006 at 6:42 PM  

  • I will now, from now on, forever more, make it a point of never ever stepping on your toes.


    By Blogger Just D, At December 22, 2006 at 10:29 PM  

  • Jocelyn-
    On a visit to Germany, I realized that (with the exception of "schadenfreude") all the German I know comes from watching Hogan's Heroes and taking philosophy classes. Thus, I know, "Achtung," "Dummkopf," and "Weltgeist." That's about it.

    I'm sorry to hear that. I guess we all do what we can, as lame as that sounds.

    You are, officially, on my "allowed to step on toes occasionally" list. BTW, hope your trip's going well!

    By Blogger Crankster, At December 22, 2006 at 11:06 PM  

  • I wish I had had a brother like you, but I'm also sure that raising Ella has given you a far richer life than you would have had otherwise, and made you a better parent to George.

    As for Scurrilous John, if he habitually treated his friends the way he did you and Ella, no wonder he's depressed. On some level, he knows he's a miserable shit, and hates himself. In fact, he probably hates himself so much that you don't need to waste your energy there. He hates himself for you, thereby freeing your energy for more pleasurable pursuits.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At December 22, 2006 at 11:49 PM  

  • I must have been drunk whilst typing the word attitude.. Happy christmas to you & your family and to all up and under me here on the comment board (ooohh matron!)

    By Blogger Judith, At December 23, 2006 at 7:46 AM  

  • What a fabulous story - you had me from the first word to the last. I'm a big fan of Scadenfreude. I used to feel guilty, but when I realised that the scummy people whose misfortune I relished would never feel either remorse for their wrongdoing or guilt at their nastiness, I gave myself a break and enjoyed it.

    PS. In the season of good will to all men, too - you're so naughty - I love it...

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At December 23, 2006 at 12:52 PM  

  • Hearts-
    I was just thinking about this recently--Children really do a lot for our lives, don't they? In my case, Ella and George really inspired me to pull my head out of my ass.

    Merry Christmas to you, too!

    I like your take on it. Why be overly self-reflective when they so clearly aren't?

    Ho, ho, ho!

    By Blogger Crankster, At December 23, 2006 at 11:15 PM  

  • It sounds like karma ran over John’s dogma. I believe feuding is always a good policy when somebody fails to follow the most basic rules of honor. One of my basic rules for living a guilt free life is, never say anything detrimental about anybody unless you have already said it to their face. There might still be a feud but at least everybody knows where everybody stands.

    By Blogger slaghammer, At December 24, 2006 at 2:30 AM  

  • Slaghammer-
    A good rule, and one I try to follow, too.

    By Blogger Crankster, At December 28, 2006 at 12:23 PM  

  • Hey, that's what he gets.

    By Blogger Lex, At December 28, 2006 at 5:03 PM  

  • Lex, I'm right there with ya.

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 3, 2007 at 3:37 PM  

  • Have you seen Avenue Q yet?

    Song: Schadenfreude


    Right now you are down and out and feeling really crappy

    I'll say.

    And when I see how sad you are
    It sort of makes me...


    Sorry, Nicky, human nature-
    Nothing I can do!
    Making me feel glad that I'm not you.

    Well that's not very nice, Gary!

    I didn't say it was nice! But everybody does it!

    D'ja ever clap when a waitress falls and drops a tray of glasses?


    And ain't it fun to watch figure skaters falling on their asses?


    And don'tcha feel all warm and cozy,
    Watching people out in the rain!

    You bet!



    People taking pleasure in your pain!

    Oh, Schadenfreude, huh?
    What's that, some kinda Nazi word?

    Yup! It's German for "happiness at the misfortune of others!"

    "Happiness at the misfortune of others." That is German!

    Watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken

    Or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in!

    Being on the elevator when somebody shouts "Hold the door!"


    "Fuck you lady, that's what stairs are for!"

    Ooh, how about...
    Straight-A students getting Bs?

    Exes getting STDs!

    Waking doormen from their naps!

    Watching tourists reading maps!

    Football players getting tackled!

    CEOs getting shackled!

    Watching actors never reach

    The ending of their oscar speech!

    The world needs people like you and me who've been knocked around by fate.
    'Cause when people see us, they don't want to be us, and that makes them feel great.

    We provide a vital service to society!

    You and me!
    Making the world a better place...
    Making the world a better place...
    Making the world a better place...
    To be!


    By Anonymous Jinja, At January 4, 2007 at 3:50 PM  

  • Jinja-
    Thanks for the flashback. As soon as I read this post, I you-tubed the song.


    By Blogger Crankster, At January 5, 2007 at 11:03 PM  

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