I have been attempting to wage the war upon feeling better when others are unhappy, since it is associated with schadenfareude, that glee when an inncocent bystander slips on a banana peel.
Tim Kreider, however, argues that it is not schadenfreude ("The Feast of Pain"). There is lonesomeness in misery, and to see that others aren't living a honky-dory life grants the lone individual with company and empathy.
This isn’t schadenfreude; it’s something more complicated for which, as far as I know, there isn’t a German compound, but if there were it’d be something like mitleidfreude, compassion-joy — compassion in the literal sense of “suffering with.” It is the happiness, or at least consolation, of knowing that Things Are Tough All Over, that everyone else is secretly as wretched as I am . . .
Often, my Facebook feed nauseates me. The constant stream of posted children's photos actually adds worry to the mix, as I consider what sort of creepy strangers (besides me) could be viewing these offerings. Then there is the snuggly pics of giddy couples, the breezy vacation snaps, and maybe even a puppy or two.
Even though I know these are simply the carefully culled shots calculatingly released to a disinterested public, it's hard to put an actual gorgeous photo into perspective when there is no counter-frame of the mother screaming at that same kid for coloring the kitchen walls.
It's just . . . isolating. "I'm HAPPY cause I post so!" I'm not unhappy, but now that there is a show-and-tell depicting what "true happiness" is, one (at least, me) begins to have unsubstantiated sensations of inadequacy. The more I try to ignore those feelings, the more I think I'm fooling myself.
Maybe it’s perverse of me, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’re all suffering a lot more than we let on. . . I’m not just ghoulishly thriving off others’ pain; I’m happy to offer up my own if it’s any use or consolation.
Humanity rarely exists on a permanent plane of happiness. We don't know how to maintain it, since it is based on internal machinery as opposed to external conditions. "The pursuit of happiness" is an impossible chase. And even if all the "happy" factors line up, sometimes bad days just happen.
A pastor I know, who gets a more privileged vista of human suffering than I do, told me she was sick of the phrase “first-world problems” — not just because it delegitimizes the perfectly real problems of those of us lucky enough to have enough to eat and Internet access, but because it denies the same stupid trivial human worries to people who aren’t. Are you not entitled to existential angst or tedium vitae if you live in Chad — must you always nobly suffer traditional third-world problems like malaria and coups d’état? If we’re lucky, we graduate to increasingly complex and better problems, and once all our material needs are satisfied we get to confront the insoluble problem of being a person in the world.
Even if we someday solve all our societal problems, people will still be unlucky in love, lonesome and bored, lie awake worrying about the future and regretting stupid things they did and wondering whether it’s all even worth it. Utopia will have an unendurable amount of hassles to deal with, endless forms to fill out, apathetic bureaucrats, taxes, ads and bad weather. Time will still pass without mercy.
OK, but I'll still clean my plate because somewhere in China children are starving.
Mitleid-freude. Me likee.