My worst course in college was German; thank God I needed only four semesters to graduate. But I am too well acquainted with the German word that describes a malady of the spirit, schadenfreude, our joy at another’s misfortune.
It is a pretty dismal spiritual condition, taking pleasure in another’s downfall. St. Paul enjoins us “to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.” And yet, it is all too easy to fall into the perversion of the spirit by which we take pleasure in another’s misfortune and become sad with another’s success. The name the church has given that latter disposition of the soul is the deadly sin of envy.
I’ve been struggling with schadenfreude of late with the news that the January 6 Committee has referred to the Justice Department four criminal charges against former President Trump. Actually, it is more than just “of late.”
It is right to want justice done — and to feel some sense of satisfaction that criminal acts may lead to some just penalty — but I’ve been enjoying schadenfreude a little overmuch. It is said that “confession is good for the soul but murder on the reputation.” Nevertheless, I confess that I indulge this malady of the spirit too much. Schadenfreude can be addictive. Sometimes I turn on the evening news just to obtain the rush of it. And the more I indulge it, the more it craves a place in my soul.
“Schadenfreude can be addictive.”
So it was with some relief that I opened The New York Times recently to an op-ed by Julia Fraga (Nov. 25) and read about her cure for Schadenfreude. It is freudenfreude. Thank you, St. Nick! This is the joy in another’s good fortune. St.Paul would approve.
She maintains we can cultivate joy by showing active interest in another’s happiness. So maybe freudenfreude can be a spiritual practice. It may even shove schadenfreude to the side for a moment.
So on my Christmas list this year is a hope for a little less schadenfreude and a little more freudenfreude. Church may help. In the more informal worship at Grace Baptist Church where I am the pastor, the congregation is small enough that on Sunday mornings we share celebrations and concerns. Almost every week I am surprised by the power of what is said and felt. There is a certain amount of oversharing, of course, the nasty gallbladders and such. It’s what comes with the habit of years of Wednesday night prayer meetings. And yet we listen, and by the grace of God, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s like a spiritual glue that helps hold us together. It’s like something healing from the inside.
Psychologists may call such spiritual practice the cultivation of empathy. We have a famine of that in our nation today. But such sharing of joys and sorrows is the tie that binds, and it is a healing balm to our spirits .
So away, schadenfreude, and come freudenfreude, come!
Stephen Shoemaker serves as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, N.C.; Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Ky.