Schadenfreude: A Confession

Carl_Spitzweg_-_Der_arme_Poet_Neue_Pinakothek copy

Yesterday, at the school where I work, I took a prognosticative multiple-choice test formulated to determine high school students’ strengths. I’m 63, familiar with the Delphic inscription Know Thyself, so I think I can accurately say that my strengths lie in dependability and my main weaknesses in impatience and impulsiveness – “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” as tight-assed TS Eliot put it.[1]

However, as I clicked my way through the 70-odd questions, it slowly dawned on me that I’m not a particularly compassionate person when it comes to inconveniencing myself to actually help people. Oh, I don’t mind sending a check, but if I had the choice between writing ten thousand times in longhand I’m not a compassionate person of or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house for the poor, I’d opt for the writer’s cramp.

In the test I took, this question came up more than once: do you like helping people? I answered sometimes virtually every time. Of course, it’s certainly gratifying rescuing a toddler caught in a riptide (which I’ve done) but not so much joining an intervention for one of your junkie relatives. The bottom line is that, no, I don’t particularly enjoy helping people if it inconveniences me, so the test was effective in that it made me realize that in reality I’m  not all that compassionate, which I sort of considered myself to be.   Sure, I enjoyed helping the guidance department test the test, but I really had no choice. It was part of my job.

As coincidence would have it, to reinforce that self-assessment, four Team USA Olympian swimmers made a bad decision down there in Rio,. Of course, virtually every bad decision is the culmination of a series of bad decisions. E.g., lying about the robbery was a bad decision, necessitated in the mind of Lochte because someone had vandalized a restroom, which was a bad decision, precipitated by staying at a disco until 5 a.m., which was a bad decision, no doubt aided-and-abetted by the consumption of torrents of intoxicants, which was a bad decision, that over-indulgence a habit arrived at early on in their hotshot days as revered student athletes and not abandoned over the course of decades, bad decisions, ad nauseam.

A truly compassionate person, the Buddhist that I used to pretend to be, would feel compassion for the swimmers. He might recall some really stupid antics committed in the throes of drunkenness from his checkered past instead of schadenfreude.

Unfortunately, what one feels is what one feels. Let the great ax fall where it may.


[1] E.g., sending an angry email at 3 a.m., dropping down the cliff face of a wave you should know you can’t handle in a hurricane swell.

5 thoughts on “Schadenfreude: A Confession

  1. Compassion is a feeling not an action. It can lead to action but that is not required. Standing by a friend in their grief, for example, does not require action, only being there.

    • Wesley…on a beach in York Maine. Da waves. Lots of surfing in Maine…who’d a thunk it.
      Synchronicity…see Jung. Reading a mind blower…the Quantum and The Lotus. A conversation between Mathieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan , a Vietnamese born astro physicist at UVA.
      This morning I stumble into your blog/slog about the choice between writing a check or actually working on a Habitat for Humanity project. You are honest. And you are , like me, not ready to take the plunge. If one’s eyes are open to even a modicum of news, especially disasters, we see folks who were ready. Doctors without Borders for example. The 24 Aids workers this year killed in Afghanistan. Like you your recent honeymoon or me on this beach, anticipating tonights fresh off the boat lobster, we are not ready. BUT..back to the Quantum & The Lotus, which is a conversation between a scientist and a Buddhist who knows science, . A constant theme is The interdependence of all phenomena, we fit that category as neatly as any other form or energy, that interdependence is demonstrable and undeniable. So, what holds us back from being that totally compassionate mind/body organism that acts all day from a degree of awareness of our interwoven-ness that permits one to be utterly fearless, which is to say transcendence over the fear of death..of “missing out” on some pleasure not yet tasted? You claim to be a wanna-be Buddhist…me too. I think that what keeps us attached to staying in this lane, is a lack of courage and humility. Re: the humility part, I mean I have not really, on a gut level, absorbed that helping others with the commitment of an unconditional love…a love that is not contractual (not ego driven) is the most effective choice I can make. All of this , the above, is intellectual, it is perhaps clear but it is , above all : safe. It is tepid..…but the intuitive certainty that taking that step is THE ISSUE, keeps growing. It grows as I get more bored with myself and this avoidance of a moral courage that transcends writing checks ( Me, too). I appreciate your blog because it stirred me to look deeper. All the best, Michael

      Here I will copy for you the intro to Chapter 4 of The quantum & the lotus…Chapter 4 The Universe In a grain of Sand

      The Interdependence and Nonseparability of Phenomena
      The concept of interdependence lies at the heart of the Buddhist vision of reality and has immense implications in Buddhism regarding how we should lead our lives……………the notion of interdependence makes us question our basic perception of the world and then use this new perception again and again to lessen our attachments, our fears, and our aversions. An understanding of interdependence should demolish the wall of illusions that our minds have built up between “me” and “the other”. It makes a nonsense of pride, jealousy, greed, and malice. If not only inert things but also all living beings are connected, then we should feel deeply concerned about the happiness and suffering of others. The attempt to build our happiness on others’ misery is not just amoral, it’s also unrealistic. Feelings of Universal love(which Buddhism defines as the desire for all beings to experience happiness and know its cause) and of compassion (the desire for all beings to be freed of suffering and its causes) are the direct consequences of interdependence. Thus a knowledge of interdependence leads to a process of inner transformation, which continues throughout the journey of spiritual enlightenment. For , if we don’t put our knowledge into practice, we are like a deaf musician, or a swimmer who dies of thirst for fear of drowning if he drinks.

  2. Thanks so much, Michael, for not only taking the time to read the blog, but by responding to it in such an insightful manner. I truly believe in the concept of interdependence (the sun is in the tree of my desk) and consider Buddhism the best way I have heard about. Now, all’s to be done is to start practicing, which seems easy enough but is so difficult to do. Cheers!

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