Just as there’s a difference between baseball players and people who play baseball, so there’s a difference between gardeners and those who garden.
Those who say, “I think I’ll throw a few tomato plants in this year” are not “baseball players,” telling us in code they’re not interested in watching things grow. And, though differing at the genus-level, growing a plant is no different from raising a child.
Therefore I have rules and views about gardening. The first is: The way a person’s garden looks is the way that person’s inner landscape is, in shape and content.
When a garden is helter-skelter, that person’s mind is helter-skelter. Gardeners might be forever catching up on things that need to be done, but are never slipshod about what sits before the eyes.
Which means that, since each plant has its own growing needs to enjoy its stay on Earth, before growing a plant, the gardener finds out about it, especially wanting to know what other gardeners have said about it.
Growing kale is not growing potatoes or laying an asparagus bed and growing any sort of thing does not mean dousing it with Miracle-Gro. The gardener is, as the person who grows things is not, interested in fostering conditions that insure diversity.
And let me add that people who say they hate weeding are not gardeners. I am amazed at the number of weed-whiners, people who act as if they’ve been besieged by an unhealing rash on a sensitive part of their body.
First of all, weeding is healthful for gardener and plant alike. For the gardener, it’s meditative, restful, and contemplative. It slows the city in us down and curbs the ADHD in everyone.
When Cicero was defending the Roman poet Archias in 62 (BCE), he told the prosecutor Gratius why Archias was so important to Rome: “You ask us, O Gratius, why we take such great delight in this man. Because he supplies us with a place where our souls might be refreshed from the din of the marketplace, and our ears weary from its clatter find some peace of mind.”
Cicero could have been talking about weeding and gardening generally. Weeding refreshes the mind by allowing the ears to breathe freely; the process of thoughts-arising as we move from bed to bed instructs us in a hundred different ways.
And because the gardener is attentive to the livability-quotient of each plant he is ready to do battle with any being that diminishes it.
I’m not saying pull every weed as if you’re intimate with it — there may be large sections to clear — but that “killing a weed,” “taking it out,” “neutralizing it” with precision requires attentiveness to its demographics.
Some weeds burrow deep into the ground and taking off their heads breeds gorgonesque effects. They threaten like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”: “I’ll be back.” The gardener’s bible says: Know thy weeds; they will be back; be prepared.
The meditative aspect of weeding ought not be minimized. It induces endorphins. When the mind sees the cultivated plant more relaxed, freed from invading hordes, the gardener relaxes too, feeling that something has been done to promote livability (the plant’s and ours from its fruition).
Mutatis mutandis, in a day or two the freed plant will be less constrained and the vigilant gardener — a redundancy of course — will record that transition, if not in a book, mentally — in gardening terms indelibly.
A good training ground for learning this vigilance is starting plants from seed, maybe upstairs in your room after winter’s done. And not to decry the efforts of those who do “the windowsill thing,” lights are essential. It’s strange but plants are more accepting of our diversity than we of theirs.
Starting life from seed, the gardener learns how to make a home, how to hydrate, how to feed a being trying to get a leg up on life.
The great tomato aficionado Craig LeHoullier says in his just-released “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” (Storey Publishing) he feeds his seedlings nothing — contrary to the wit of most — because today’s potting soils are fully fit.
It’s a great book; if you are a tomato fan, get it, study it; I have problems with aspects of its design but the content is far beyond a 100-percent solid. He and Carolyn J. Male are the best there are, though she talks about tomatoes in a way that enraptures me.
The last thing I’ll say about method has to do with successive plantings. If green beans are a favorite (bush, say), you’ll need to plant a row every 10 days. I’m surprised at how many people treat growing as a one-shot deal.
And, in terms of planting lettuce, we have nearby greenhouses such as Gade’s and Pigliavento’s to get us an early start, so there’s no reason to buy lettuce from late May to late October — and infinitely better tasting than any store-bought.
And because the gardener refuses to let winter have the final say, toward the end of summer he counts back from the first frost and plants accordingly what the family likes, well aware that peas planted in early August present a different set of rules from those set out in April.
My father knew this; he was a gardener. He cut grass for rich people on weekends and took care of their flower beds but in our backyard, the size of a postage-stamp, he had fruit trees from upstate nurseries producing five kinds of apples on a single stem.
Once when I was a kid he asked me to go to the library with him at night; he had a horticultural question to review. I saw him in the reference room wrapped in silence seated before tomes on a large oak table in another world. He had an aura.
That day (night) I fell in love with gardening. I had my own when I was 18 and living in a monastery, a whole other world under a whole other set of circumstances, but his other-world devotion stayed with me.
Each day when I go to weed and support the conditions of life, in some way my father is with me and I keep in mind my first garden when my soul was freed from the din of the marketplace and my mind from the clamor of its death.
Oh, and for the record, any gardener I know is beyond happy to hear anyone say at any time, “I think I’ll throw a few tomato plants in this year.”
Anyone anywhere who has an interest in attending to living things we’ll take. That is the nature of us gardeners.
“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it,” according to George Holyoake, the 18th-Century British writer who coined the term. “Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”
It’s referred to as the “American secular movement.” What it refers to is the deep dissatisfaction of a fast-growing number of Americans with official religious values and the institutions that oversee their observance.
Identified among this disaffected horde of non-traditional believers — let us call them that for now — are atheists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics, Unitarian Universalists, pagans, and other categories of not-formally-religious and non-theistic Americans.
A report published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in October 2012 said one-third of adults under 30 call themselves “religiously unaffiliated” and in the five years prior to the publication of that report the so-called “Nones” increased by a percentage point a year.
It’s a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed or without concern and comment by a wide range of interested parties, and for a diverse set of reasons.
During the spring semester of this year, Douglas Knight, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, is teaching a course called “Secularism” in which 29 of his colleagues are involved as guest lecturers to explore what’s occurring in the United States with respect to the shifting axis of moral values.
Four years ago, California’s Pitzer College established a once-inconceivable Department of Secular Studies where students can major in different aspects of “secular studies” under the direction of Professor Phil Zuckerman and his departmental colleagues.
In his 2014 “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions,” Zuckerman set out to explore the parameters of the movement as well as divine how “believers of another sort,” defined as atheists or agnostics by traditional believers, can be as giving, and “self-sacrificing,” and committed to community as the most traditionally religious devotee. And without pietistic rigmarole.
Zuckerman makes clear that many people who have adopted humanist values and ethics do not have an ax to grind with (formal) religion. They are more interested in understanding the fact-based foundations of their own beliefs and how those beliefs continue providing support in meeting life’s challenges with propriety and dignity.
Founded in August 1896 by George Holyoake, The Secular Review: A Journal of Agnosticism, cost twopence. This Jan. 9, 1886 edition began with a couplet from Tennyson: “And truth is this to me, and that to thee;/And truth, or clothed and naked, let it be.” The last issue was published in June 1907.
Paul Kurtz, the late professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who is recognized as “the father of secular humanism” long ago warned that, when formal religious beliefs and practices no longer hold meaning for a person, that person’s aim ought not to be bashing them and the people who live traditional religious lives but rather to find out how to proceed with his or her own life with meaning.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2010, Kurtz said, “Most of my colleagues are concerned with critiquing the concept of God. That is important, but equally important is, where do you turn?”
In 2009, Kurtz resigned from the board of the Center for Inquiry, a group he founded, because he felt its derisive tone toward others was too contentious a path to follow.
When “the movement” is discussed, it needs to be pointed out that invidious comparisons are made at the outset by the way we speak about its diverse aggregate. It’s fruitless to talk about a-theists, a-gnostics, secularists, pagans and related nomina because they are inherently pejorative. With the use of the alpha privative in a-theist and a-gnostic, for example, the assumption is already made these “infidels” are second-class knockoffs of their real-deal theo-believing counterparts.
You will see articles such as: “Is goodness without God good enough?” and “Why Americans Hate Atheists.” Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas still retain articles in their constitutions that prohibit atheists from holding public office. Maryland’s requires a belief in God to serve as juror or witness. And it seems the long-standing shibboleth that no atheist will ever be elected President of the United States remains true to this day.
In his 175-page “Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism,” published last year, Philip Kitcher provides a systematic and somewhat convincing argument for how a person can lead a moral life without God and formal religious beliefs and institutions.
I keep saying “formal” as in institutional because humanists do have beliefs based in religious values. And they are religious because “religion” comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind, to connect to the world around you.
And, even if we accept Cicero’s derivation that religion comes from relegere (to treat carefully) — the religiosi were those who took seriously all things pertaining to the gods — the aforementioned derivation holds true because we treat with care those to whom we’re bound. That is the nature of pietas.
But the issue of whether a person who lives a fact-based as opposed to faith-based life can live a moral life remains the wishbone of contention, so it is not surprising that Charles Darwin is turned to because through his work he reminded us that the basis of moral values is found in our social natures. He did say his “theory will lead to a new philosophy.”
I’m not here to provide an apologia for “secular humanism,” no, scratch the secular part, only to point out that our “social instincts” — a 19th-Century phrase that still retains legitimacy — allow us, as Darwin said, “to take pleasure in the society of [our] fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”
And sympathy here does not mean the now-commonly-accepted feelings of pity and sorrow for someone suffering loss but more feeling bound to others in meaningful relationships that require care and, at the most basic level, reciprocity. Let’s call it an economic-based empathy.
And the tool that enables empathetic-bound-to-other-persons to proceed firmly on moral ground is the imagination. When I see your suffering, I imagine myself to be similarly situated, to be you, and I am moved to action.
I am also moved to envision new ways of being, of creating social institutions and societies in which suffering is eliminated. But, since pain and suffering are part and parcel of the human situation, that envisioning manifests itself through a society in which pain and suffering are responded to with loving care, in which structures are set up to meet human needs at all levels.
The great 20th-Century American poet Wallace Stevens in his poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” comes up with the astounding “God and the imagination are one.”
That is what the humanists are saying, that they have in their power the tool to imagine all as one, and that that connectedness is the basis of all moral values (and subsequent remorse when harm is done), and that a Supreme Being of any sort seems if not inconsequential highly superfluous.
Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
“Self-discipline” was defined by William Bennett as, “controlling our tempers, or our appetites, or our inclinations to sit all day in front of the television.” Modern Berne-Knox-Westerlo students last year got a taste of earlier school discipline when they visited a one-room schoolhouse in Knox.
In his memoirs, Ben Franklin wrote, “There was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.” I’m not sure who “The Prophet of Tolerance” would put in the category of “great men” today, but I am sure he would not call them virtuous because the words “virtue” and “virtuous” have all but disappeared from our vocabulary.
Even “habit,” as a disposition of the soul — and long associated with virtue — is non courant and might explain in part a growing concern about the loss of the “virtue” of self-discipline.
Years ago, William Bennett, who served as the nation’s first drug czar under George Bush (the 41st president), was bothered by this erosion in cultural values and took it upon himself to assemble a more than 800-page tome called “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.” This “‘how to’ book for moral literacy” is filled with poems and stories Bennett hoped kids would read and “achieve at least a minimum level of moral literacy” through the development of “good habits.”
He showcased 10 virtues among which were “compassion,” “courage,” “honesty,” “loyalty,” and “self-discipline” — the last of which he begins the book with — the “controlling our tempers, or our appetites, or our inclinations to sit all day in front of the television.”
I went back and looked at what Bennett said about discipline because there were several articles in the newspapers recently in which discipline took center stage.
On March 14, Paul Sperry of The Post wrote a piece called “How liberal discipline policies are making schools less safe.” Sperry said, “New York public-school students caught stealing, doing drugs or even attacking someone can avoid suspension under new ‘progressive’ discipline rules adopted this month.” Id est: The inmates are running the asylum.
Such a take on self-control is not new. In his column a while back, psychiatrist Greg Smith bemoaned the erosion of discipline at home and school alike.
In school, he said, teachers were “hamstrung” and at home, “Parents do not feel that they make the rules anymore. There can be no house rules. There can be no punishments, behavioral or corporal or otherwise, because Little Johnny has the Department of Social Services on speed dial on his $600 iPhone and will call them if his parents lift a finger to keep order in their own home.”
A cynical assessment from a psychiatrist and a pretty paranoid kid, unless of course he knew something we didn’t.
But Bennett comes to the rescue with a solution for how to handle such unrestrained beings using the words of Hilaire Belloc’s poem “Rebecca.” Belloc says there was “a wealthy banker's little daughter,” Rebecca, who was “aggravating” and "rude and wild" and made "furious sport" by “slamming doors” in the house startling the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of uncle Jacob.
And because this little darling did not seem amenable to feedback, shall we say, someone in the family took it upon himself — or herself (it does not say who) — to set a heavy marble bust atop the door so that, when Rebecca blew through next and clapped the portal shut, the bust came down and killed her on the spot.
Rebecca’s good points were mentioned at the funeral but a warning was sent to those situated similarly to "The Dreadful End of One/Who goes and slams the Door for Fun." Through the words of Belloc, the drug czar’s riposte of neutralization makes boot camp seem like vacationing in Rome.
Then there was the article in The Times on March 11 about the Arkansas senator, Tom Cotton, who was responsible for “the” letter to the leaders of Iran urging them to not make a deal with the Obama Administration on nuclear arms.
Cotton’s fans and detractors both said he was highly “disciplined.” But retired Army General Paul D. Eaton, a senior advisor to the National Security Network, said, “The idea of engaging directly with foreign entities on foreign policy is frankly a gross breach of discipline.”
What! Is there a good discipline and a bad discipline? Can one stay in bounds in some arenas and then transgress boundaries in others? Such a division would seem antithetical to self-control.
To prevent the transgression of boundaries and the harm it creates — which might include tempers flaring and appetites spilling out onto the floor of the world — for ages monks “took the discipline,” that is, used a cattail whip of knotted cords (itself called a discipline) to lash themselves across the back during prayer. Pope John Paul II was said to have taken the discipline and even brought his whipping belt on vacation.
But we know externally imposed discipline and neurotic attempts at controlling the self work intermittently and have no legs. E.g.: We’re speeding along, we see a cop, we slow down, a half-mile down the road we ramp it back to 80 — without a wisp of guilt. So much for the threat of boot camp.
Years ago, I was taken with the great classics teacher and philosopher Norman Brown’s famous Phi Beta Kappa speech at Columbia University in 1960 — another was Emerson’s at Harvard in 1837 — where he spoke about how to achieve a lasting discipline, far afield of any marble bust snapping the neck of a child across a door jamb.
Brown said the answer is enthusiasm and he explained to the assembled that the word comes from the Greek “entheos,” which means “god in us,” so that “the eyes of the spirit...become one with the eyes of the body, and god [is] in us, not outside.”
Who needs external control if you’re on fire with purpose and dedicated to actions that support life and can see their joyful effects?
Enthusiasm excludes high performing, automaton, grade-mongering students in schools and rigid automatons in the workplace. Research shows kids in that boat tend to be superficial in their thinking, less creative, and let go of what they learned when the pay-off ends (when the cop is out of sight). It’s doubtful whether such souls will ever become one of Franklin’s virtuous few.
And, if you’ll recall, the aforementioned Mr. Bennett was a “preferred customer” big-stakes gambler at Atlantic City and Vegas and reportedly lost more than $8 million on Lady Luck’s $500-a-pull-slots and other games of fate.
When Bennett was brought to task for what seemed a contradiction in the words v. deeds department of self-discipline, his ideological ally, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said that it was a matter between Mr. Bennett, his wife, and his accountant.
I thought it was an issue of controlling appetites. Would anyone on fire for life give even a passing glance to the capricious lure of Fortuna? Enthusiasm would never stand for it.
— From the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers
Howard Stansbury, a civil engineer, was a captain. His only known image is from a carte d’visite; on the back is a handwritten note, attributing his 1863 death “to disease contracted in the Rocky Mountains.” He was born in New York City on Feb. 8, 1806.
In 1852, the United States Senate published the findings of Captain Howard Stansbury’s 1849-1850 expedition to the Great Salt Lake. The report was called “Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah: Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains.”
Stansbury, an officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, had been assigned by the Senate to travel from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to the Great Salt Lake to scout out emigration trails, especially locations that might benefit the coming continental railroad.
The report is comprised of entries of what Stansbury and his team saw and did each day. Scientists were thrilled with his takes on new flora and fauna and the animals they came across, as well as the captain’s account of the Mormon community with which he lived one winter under the direction of Brigham Young.
Ethicists were thrilled with what Stansbury had to say on May 30, 1850 while walking along the shores of Gunnison’s Island situated in the middle of the lake, a key breeding ground for the American white pelican.
Stansbury was admiring the flood of pelicans along the shores of “the bold, clear, and beautifully translucent water” when he came across “a venerable looking old pelican, very large and fat,” which allowed Stansbury to approach him “without attempting to escape.”
More striking was the pelican’s “apparent tameness [and when] we examined him more closely,” Stansbury says, “[we] found that it was owing to his being entirely blind, for he proved to be very pugnacious, snapping freely, but vaguely, on each side, in search of his enemies, whom he could hear but could not see.”
And because the pelican “was totally helpless,” Stansbury knew he “subsisted on the charity of his neighbors, and his sleek and comfortable condition showed, that like beggars in more civilized communities, he had ‘fared sumptuously every day.’”
Pelicans are piscivorous, fish-eaters, and, since the salinity of the Great Salt Lake allows few fish to thrive, adult pelicans on Gunnison travel more than 30 miles one way to get food for their young — and their blind “comrade.”
A 19th-Century engraving of a pelican by William Heath is roughly contemporary with the expedition taken by Howard Stansbury to the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
An admiring Lewis Henry Morgan included Stansbury’s story in his classic “The American Beaver,” published in 1868, but perhaps more tantalizing is that Mr. Charles Darwin recorded that act of empathy in “The Descent of Man” three years later.
Though acts of mutual aid do not fit nicely with “survival of the fittest,” Darwin avers in “The Descent of Man,” “I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog.”
He offers examples of other dogs, baboons, elephants, cattle, and birds acting toward their comrades with a “moral instinct” that can only be construed as empathy.
The scientist and philosopher-anarchist Peter Kropotkin knew of the pelican story and referenced it in “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” published in 1902. In the first two chapters, Kropotkin offers a host of examples of animals coming to the aid of each other when needed.
And, in an oft-cited lab experiment dealing with animal empathy — written up in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” in 1964 — Jules Masserman and his team at Northwestern University tested to see if monkeys would give one up for the Gipper, as it were, when called upon.
The experiment allowed rhesus monkeys to pull a chain to access food but, when they did, a monkey next to them was zapped with an electric shock. After a time, the monkeys refused to pull the chain — maybe Masserman should have pulled the plug at this point — one monkey not eating for 12 days, risking starvation to avoid paining another.
On Gunnison, what went on in the pelicans’ minds such that they “felt” compelled to bring fish for a useless comrade? Or what makes the famed meerkat risk death when serving as a lookout for his foraging clan? Can we attribute such acts to protoplasm alone?
Several years ago, Voorheesville veterinarian Holly Cheever told me a story of her earliest days of practice with dairy farmers in upstate New York.
She said she got a call one day from a farmer complaining that one of his brown Swiss cows — who just delivered a calf on pasture (her fifth for the farmer) — when brought onto the milking line, was found to have a completely dry udder. It could not have been the calf because her calf had been taken right after birth — standard practice.
The dry-udder situation continued for days when the bottom line says a new mother should produce one hundred pounds (12.5 gallons) of milk a day. The farmer was at his wit’s end.
Cheever reiterated last week that the mother was healthy, she was following the routine of the other cows — out to and back from pasture — but still no milk.
Finally, on the 11th day, the hapless farmer followed the cow and saw her head into a woods at the edge of the pasture where, mirabile visu, he saw a calf waiting for his mother whom she fed at her heart’s delight. She had given birth to twins!
If she had hid both calves, the farmer would have known right away; all things being equal, a pregnant cow would not go out to pasture and come back with nothing.
I think, as Chever does, that this cow had a maternal sense of justice. She had already given the farmer five babies, all taken right after birth. Now that she birthed two at once, she figured: One for him, one for me! She tipped the scales of justice her way.
Cheever said, “All I know is this: There is a lot more going on behind those beautiful eyes than we humans have ever given them credit for, and, as a mother who was able to nurse all four of my babies and did not have to suffer the agonies of losing my beloved offspring, I feel her pain.”
I know about the Animal Protection Federation and the recent efforts of Albany County District Attorney David Soares enabling authorities to better respond to, and prevent, animal abuse in the county.
But I remain stunned as to how folk can harm our compatriots who tell us in a million different ways where we came from and how we might better ourselves by offering aid to every blind pelican that comes our way.
I’m sure most people, when asked to provide a list of emotions they experience in a given month, would not include “schadenfreude” even though it rears its head often enough.
Coming from the German “schaden,” which means harm, and “freude,” meaning joy, the experience is one of feeling pleasure at the misfortune of another.
It’s a strange emotion to be sure because we usually associate joy with a pleasant outcome whereas schadenfreude is pleasure derived from another’s ill.
And the experience is universal. William James in “Principles of Psychology” says, “There is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; [even] an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which 'Shocking Atrocity' stands printed in large capitals.”
Indeed researchers who seek to quantify its presence in our lives say schadenfreude is on the rise. In “The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreuse and the Dark Side of Human Nature,” Richard Smith says he looked at the number of times “schadenfreude” appeared in the English language from 1800 to 2008. In modern times, he says, from the 1980s on, schadenfreude as concept and “practice” has achieved a greater share of our emotional landscape.
I’m inclined to think it’s because we’ve become a more punitive and cynical society, maybe even more sadistic, and schadenfreude is one of the manifestations of that callousness — though schadenfreude is not in the same ballpark as sadism (or even gloating), which are more actively aggressive in nature.
Because schadenfruede is etymologically German, for years critics characterized it as a peculiarly German phenomenon, especially during World War II! But, when we examine the spectrum of world cultures, we see that every culture has its own word or combination of words to denote this emotion or some approximation of it.
The French have their “joie maligne,” Hebrew has “simcha-la-ed,” and ancient Greek has “epichairekakia,” which ancient as well as modern scholars say is a distant relative of greed, avarice, and envy.
In Japanese, there’s “meshiuma,” which means, “Food tastes good that comes from the misfortune of others.” The writer Gore Vidal once remarked, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” The converse would be, “Every time a friend fails, I am more alive” and the double converse, “I derive pleasure from the misfortune of others.”
For those unfamiliar with the word (I will not say the experience), an example might be helpful at this point.
We are driving along our favorite county road, staying well beneath the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit because the road is highly patrolled. All of a sudden, a large SUV appears in the rearview mirror with a young kid at the wheel and he’s up our bumper.
Staying our course, we see the “kid” begin to wave his arms in what seems to be gestures of anger; he then pulls out over the double yellow line and guns it past us. As his passenger window nears ours, he looks down at us with derision and double-guns it up the hill and out of sight.
A few moments later, as we near the hill, we see his car pulled over and a cop writing him a ticket. If we feel a certain satisfaction at this point and think something like, “He got what he deserved,” or, “Justice triumphed,” or, “There is a God,” we are in the schadenfreude business.
When Martha Stewart was indicted in 2001, the United States experienced a kind of national schadenfreude. People felt that the person who had dictated personal and social tastes for years finally got her comeuppance.
There is some debate over whether the shadenfroh’s delight comes from the bodily pleasure produced or seeing society’s fabric saved. In other words, was justice done to the nervous system or to the collective? And there is strong evidence that shows when the experienced misfortune is great, schadenfreude all but disappears and a hybrid form of empathy kicks in.
Understandably schadenfreude has been linked to envy because when we envy another’s possessions or achievements, we engage in an internal (and often subtle) trash-talk dialogue, subconsciously trying to improve our own lot. People pay big money to therapists for years to understand and get out from beneath such a complex.
The irony is that people will talk about schadenfreude experiences openly whereas they are far more reluctant to speak about what they envy because envy is an open admission of inferiority.
Of course the moral implications of schadenfreude have not gone unnoticed. In Spanish there is a saying: Gozarse en el mal ajeno, no es de hombre buen (“A man who rejoices in the misfortunes of others is not a good man”). Or should we say is a person who has not reached emotional maturity?
We do know that when schadenfreude is primed with emotional steroids, the frequency and intensity of its presence leads to the destruction of relationships. When I first came upon schadenfreude years ago, I immediately thought of the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s concept of “vindictive triumph,” which she saw alive in her patients saddled with neurosis. Vindictive triumph might be viewed as schadenfreude when it becomes a structural part of our identity and one justified by a more highly toxic logic.
In “Neurosis and Human Growth,” Horney says the drive to vindictively overcome others grows out of “impulses to frustrate, outwit, or defeat [them] . . . because the motivating force stems from impulses to take revenge for humiliations suffered in childhood.”
Often enough, this chronic illness might be accompanied by headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and insomnia because the drive to see others get their “due” is relentlessly churned up in the subconscious.
If vindictive triumph is indeed a compensatory mechanism, and schadenfreude and vindictive triumph are in fact manifesting themselves more frequently in our culture, as research suggests, what are we compensating for? Why has the need to triumph vindictively moved center stage? Why the need for such an array of trophies?
Heavy stuff indeed, but, as the United States continues to undergo its current identity crisis, understanding what drives people to increasingly take joy in the misfortune of others will enable us to forge a less aggressive future self. Maybe that’s what the great American poet Allen Ginsberg was alluding to when he said, “Candor disarms paranoia.”