Chapter to Chapter

Schadenfreude

We’re living in a time in which current popular culture is driven by images of fictitious superheroes. Commercials, stores, the Internet, even daily conversations are filled with references to various billionaire techno-geniuses, teens bitten by radioactive spiders, selfish doctors turned into wizards, scientists transformed by anger into giant green monsters, sons of Valhalla, mutant raccoons, and much, much more. Although you may watch the movies or even see the products, you may or may not hear the conversations that some of us are privy to—constantly. I get it.  Most of us, really all of us, have been brought up in a world that has stories of comics and movies.  A couple of decades back, you couldn’t escape everything Titanic. Before that, Jurassic mania was everywhere.  Before that, it was Indiana Jones or E.T. or Star Wars or Planet of the Apes or Blob.  I suppose it’s escape.  Most fiction is in a way. We work and pay bills, deal with unreasonable co-workers, try to avoid the drunken neighbors, pay ten-times too much for groceries, get angry at the news, wonder which processed food is causing our abdominal cramps, clean a home that gets dirty again in three hours, wonder why our relatives would marry such politically insane people, get too little sleep, and deal with hundreds of robo-calls asking for donations to various memorial funds—and then we wake up the next day to all those frustrations, plus a few more.  No wonder we want escape.  We want to watch, read, or talk about something that’s not part of our actual reality, something safe, something that allows us to turn away from the crazy to the unreal. However, with all actions, there are consequences. 

     Is escapism bad?  Not in and of itself.  And not if the participant understands its limits.  What such forays into the worlds of the powerful, supernatural, wealthy, and strong do is to allow us to live in those worlds vicariously.  We get to feel what it would feel like to be better, more powerful, stronger, more intelligent.  We live with the superheroes movie after movie.  We live with the characters game after game.  We live with the lovers romance book after romance book. We see the world the writers and directors and developers want us to see. We see their worldview, no, we are programmed hour after hour to their worldview because we connect with these great characters, seeing the problems of the world not through the eyes of the common, ordinary person trying to live with limited means and little time and power, but through the eyes of someone who can do anything he wants with superpowers and wealth.  In many of these tales, such power brings cynicism and a real dislike of the common people. “Regular” folks die left and right, looking, longing for help from the “supermen” or the sages. Those lives come across as numbers. We root for the big man, the one who has to live because he is so “amazing” and extraordinary. Yes, in our willingness to be pulled into so many fictional universes and shown how we should think, we start to see the world much differently from the ways our grandmothers thought and lived. We become “woke” and aware of newer ways of analyzing our world.

     Newton taught a powerful concept of physics that applies to everyday life: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But we also know that for every action, there can be many resulting actions of similar magnitude. You punch a friend, and you may get a punch in return, but his friend may also knock your lights out.  This connection we as humans long for, this need to feel power breeds judgment on those “less important” and can lead to dehumanization.  We may not want to hurt or maim others, but we can gradually devalue each other, not hoping for the best for each other, wanting to make sure that our piece of pie is larger and sweeter.  After a while, it’s not just wanting to do well; we want others to do poorly.  It’s as if their failure cheers us up.  The German word for this concept is schadenfreude. Yes, it’s a real term: finding joy in others’ misfortunes.  It’s a disturbing idea.  We are all humans with potential and value. I fear that as we gravitate toward entertaining ourselves through the objectification of others, schadenfreude will become the norm.