Is It a Schadenfreude World?

by Will Smythe


You must live for another if you wish to live for yourself – Seneca

Our generation’s complaints are no different from those that preceded: “Workmanship is shoddy”. “The clothes kids wear are ridiculous”. “The government is taking us all to hell in a hand-basket”, or even perhaps, “The end is near”.  Some go as far to say that we are now living in a schadenfreude world – a German term that means, literally, to derive pleasure from the misery of others.

I don’t believe that all contemporary work is shoddy.  When I was a boy, there were auto repairmen on every corner of my hometown.  Today, it’s a rarity for your vehicle to require major repair, and if it does repeatedly, you may declare it a “lemon” and get a new one.

The clothes I wore in the 1970’s were admittedly stranger than my teenage son’s attire, with the possible exception of his inability to keep his pants up above the level of his boxer shorts, and his strange desire to make everyone think his last name is “Abercrombie”, or that he is a native Indian of some sort – i.e., American Eagle.

I don’t believe that the government is ruining my life, but would prefer a lower tax rate. I also want to be secure at home, and on airplanes, but wish we would spend more on health care and education, and less on making war.

Despite our continued compulsion to kill one another, I do not personally worry that Armageddon is imminent, or that the antichrist is among us, ready to reveal his true identity – not as he has been presenting himself, as a personal injury and malpractice lawyer, but as an even deadlier and more arbitrary “beast”.

Finally, I do not really believe that the world has turned into a giant self-cleaning oven, and that a massive heat wave is about to snuff out all life on this planet.  Admittedly, this last consideration is likely colored by the fact that I live inTexas, where it is hot most of the time, rather than any scientific or political bias.

What about the schadenfreude world issue?  I don’t really ascribe to this either, but I do believe that true empathy is less common, as is common courtesy.

Smiles and salutations are rare.  People don’t say “excuse me” when they bump into you with a Walmart grocery cart, or push you out of the way entering a restaurant.  Often, they’re too busy talking on their cell phones, at a level that insures I am an unwilling participant.  At times they are using some sort of mysterious, hidden Bluetooth device, which results in me wondering if the person next to me is a potentially dangerous schizophrenic communicating with an apparition, or just another guy having a “normal” conversation.  Alternatively they are head down, texting, so that they have to use physical contact with others as a sort of sonar to keep them moving forward, no longer looking up at potential impediments.

The general public watches the travails of others in real time on television with bated anticipation.  “True TV” shows relay the innocuous antics of pets and children, but they also show people falling off of ladders, straddling fences and car accidents.  Rather than laughing, I find myself asking, “Jeez, I wonder if that guy was hurt?”

I don’t remember road rage as a frequent occurrence as a child.  Every now and then another driver would do something silly, and my father would mutter something under his breath, but often he laughed.  I admit that my parents were fairly calm people, and that I grew up where there were few cars and fewer traffic lights, however, density and courtesy don’t seem to necessarily inversely correlate today.  Being that it was a small town inTexas, we also carried loaded rifles right there on the gun rack in the back window of the truck, but didn’t seem to feel the need to use them on each other when someone ran out in front of someone else at an intersection.

On Sundays, my grandparents and I would often go to the hospital to visit.  We would look in on anyone that belonged to our church, or friends and acquaintances (it wasn’t always clear to me that the person we were visiting even knew who we were).  I am now a physician, and see first hand that this practice has diminished.  Grown children are “busy”, or “live so far away”.

Our institutionalization of the recovering, and of the dying, has contributed to this – we used to do these things at home.  We also used to live in the same area where we grew up, and were therefore more available to care for family – kids for grandparents, and vice versa, while the parents worked.  The restless mobilization of America, and the imperative of the two wage earner household, combined with increased financial incentives to care for patients in nursing home and similar facilities have created a great deal of solitude in recovery from illness, as we age imperfectly, and in death.

I have a morbid habit, perhaps, of asking patients my age and older what their most earnest fear is.  I have been impressed (depressed?) by how commonly I hear the words, “dying alone”.

Religious beliefs guarantee neither an interest in, nor the practice of living vicariously through others, as beliefs and actions are frequently uncoupled.  Seneca, whose quote I used earlier, was banished to the first ring of hell by Dante in The Divine Comedy for not overtly accepting Judeo-Christian faith, but I would take him any day over Pope Clement V, the papal leader at the time – he burned members of competing Judeo-Christian sects at the stake for disagreeing with Catholic doctrine.

So, maybe it’s not a schadenfreude world, but it’s not a very empathetic one anymore either.

Your own time of misfortune, pain and mortality is coming, it is the human condition. Will others trivialize, or even worse – ignore it, or will you be comforted?

Based on the “Golden Rule”, another perhaps antiquated concept – what will you deserve?


2 thoughts on “Is It a Schadenfreude World?

  1. I would say that the fear of aging and dying alone is a fear of mine as well. I really try not to think about it but it is in the back of my mind as I have no children and very little family. Great post!

  2. I work with hospice and deal with the dying. I help them make a comfortable, peaceful transition. I love my “children” as I call them. I could have “schadenfreude” with people who willfully hurt as many people as they were able to get to. Bottom line, they are humans with a soul. I can not influence the consequences of their choices, however, I can love them.

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