A Gathering Voices post by Greg Garrett
It’s a very human impulse, although that doesn’t necessarily make it a good one.
Maybe we look at some of the powerful men currently accused of stupid or illicit behavior (Congressman Anthony Weiner, actor and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, head of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Sen. John Edwards, most recently) and we take delight in their falls.
Maybe we look at people we consider insufferable (the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, who promised the city a multitude of NBA titles, although he certainly didn’t play well enough to help his team win this year’s trophy) and glory in their failures.
Maybe we look at regular folks who make fools of themselves (contestants on reality shows, cheaters confronted by their wives and TV cameras, or even just those idiots whose car is being searched by a state trooper as we drive past) and we glory in our own safety or normality.
When we take delight in the failures or pain of others, we are indulging in what the Germans call schaudenfraude (the English word "gloating" comes pretty close to the same idea).
But here’s what I wonder. It’s one thing to feel satisfaction that Gov. Schwarzenegger, whom I’ve always suspected was a boor and a cheat, actually is a boor and a cheat. And there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of moral gray area when I look at Rep. Weiner’s sexting to young women, shake my head, and say “What an idiot.”
But what about when misfortune happens to those closer to us—and we still feel schaudenfraude?
In his poem “On the Death of Dr. Swift,” the Irish poet, clergyman, and student of human nature Jonathan Swift pointed out our human tendency to delight even in the problems of our friends:
In all distresses of our friends
We first consult our private ends;
While nature, kindly bent to ease us,
Points out some circumstance to please us….
Dear honest Ned is in the gout,
Lies racked with pain, and you without:
How patiently you hear him groan!
How glad the case is not your own!
Swift’s suggestion is that part of our delight is that we are not suffering the same pain (or shame, or scandal), and that is, as I said, a very human response. But what about our human (and more specifically, Christian) calls to compassion, love, and forgiveness?
Clearly there is a disconnect of some sort if we respond to suffering or scandal with pleasure, and it's a more obvious disconnect if we experience that pleasure in regard to those we know and reputedly love.
I can say I haven’t gotten anywhere near to compassion or forgiveness yet for Rep. Weiner and his sexy tweets, or for John Edwards, who cheated on his wife while she battled cancer, or for the wealthy and lecherous Strauss-Kahn who is accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his luxury hotel. And I wonder if I will—which makes me wonder some more.
Should we ever take pleasure in the failures or misfortunes of others? What ought our Christian response be to scandal?