I was reading the news coverage of Jon and Kate’s divorce and I feel really bad for those eight kids. The whole situation will definitely take a toll on them. But I am also a little embarrassed to admit that their story made me breathe a sigh of relief. When I read about someone’s marriage on the rocks, celebrities doing really stupid things, and all the problems other people have, sometimes I get this odd sense of personal comfort. It is not that I am happy that others are suffering. I don’t want to see other people in pain (unless I get to pick the person and do the deed). These stories make me feel relieved because they remind me that I’m not alone in this world, that my life isn’t the only imperfect life out there.
The Germans have a word for this phenomenon: Schadenfreude. Wikipedia says it means “pleasure derived from others misfortunes.” I hate to inform the Germans but we’ve had a term for this state of mind for decades; it’s called “being a bitch.” Their word sounds more official, but ours is much easier to understand.
Nonetheless, the German definition sounds a little sadistic. I wouldn’t say I derive pleasure from other people’s suffering, like the kind of pleasure I get when I eat a cupcake or win on a slot machine. It’s more like a “reduction in anxiety.” I feel a little more comfortable when I know I’m not the only one out there with problems.
For most of us, these feelings stem from insecurity. It’s tough to see other people succeed in life because it makes us question our own abilities. When they screw up, we feel affirmed, like we’re not doing so badly after all. We struggle to get to that point where we no longer compare ourselves and our lives to the world around us, where we derive our self-worth from within. But getting to that place is a long, tough journey.
I know I am not there yet. Even though I want to be happy for the gorgeous, skinny woman who marries a hunk with a million dollars, I still have the urge to tie her down and force feed her donuts until her thighs look more like my own. I just can’t help it; I’m human, I’m insecure, and I want to share my love of baked goods with others. Copyright © 2009 Alison James