Friday, December 21, 2007

A Call for Glückenfreude

We all cheer for the underdog, the person who is depressed, who lost a job, who is ill. Secretly, we also occasionally cheer when someone we dislike experiences misfortune, deservedly we believe: schadenfreude. But perhaps the opposite is required somewhat more -- and is considerably nobler.

Schadenfreude, we all know, comes from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy): joy in the misfortune of another.

Face it, you think you might not feel a teensy weensy bit of it if Bill and Melinda Gates got divorced? If Osama got cancer? You weren't secretly glad when Barry Bonds got caught using steroids, Hugh Grant was arrested for getting oral sex from a prostitute in a car, banks lost money due to shady loans, when Scooter Libby was convicted?

Good. Now it's out in the open. We all feel a little schadenfreude now and then. Now Let's consider the opposite.

Your pal gets a promotion or award while you're still stuck in the same old job. Your best friend falls madly in love and you can't get a first date to save your life. Your neighbors take that dream vacation you've always wanted and you haven't been to the next town in three years.

Don't these people make you mad?

For years I felt invidious irritation toward James Fallows. Although he is only three years older than I am, he was Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, when I was an apprentice aide to the speechwriter of an international diplomat.

He glided from the White House to the Atlantic Monthly, NPR and endless books, essays and a generally placid and comfortable life with wife and, I believe, daughter. I was let go, later fired from another job and have since toiled obscurely on an economic publication that is revered in its field -- but let's face it, I'm no James Fallows.

How dare he show me up like this!

At first I comforted myself that his passage through Harvard and Oxford were mere perquisites of being born with a silver spoon. But no! He had the effrontery of coming from a working class background and winning scholarships on his own merit.

Surely he would divorce. Surely he would have children with disabilities. Get cancer. Turn out to be a plagiarizer. No, no, no.

People like James Fallows should be shot.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that other people felt similarly about me. Ten years ago I had the good fortune to manage a very leveraged buyout of the firm where I worked. I went to lunch with a dear friend, showed her my new business card with "President" on it. Her face was blank. I thought she didn't understand, so I told her.

"Oh, I have thought of starting a publication," she said. No "congratulations" or "I'm so happy for you," no matter how insincere. I chased her for another lunch over the next three months and it was clear she despised me for my good luck. At least, she was honest; she just couldn't deal with my admittedly modest success.

Since then, I have experienced moments in which I wanted to cry out for joy -- all amid the humdrum teeth-gritting reality in this vale of tears. Sons getting into prestigious universities and embarking upon challenging, make-a-Dad-proud careers.

I have gradually learned that no one is interested in my good fortune. Indeed, they'll likely get upset.

So beginning in this Winter Solstice season, I am calling for a new campaign of Glückenfreude -- joy in the happiness and good fortune of others.

Let me begin with James Fallows: I raise a toast to you, sir, I am honored to have read your marvelous prose, am delighted you have traveled well with your delightful family. If we ever meet, I admit, I will be starstruck, bask in your good fortune and consider it my own to have such a privilege.
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