For Mothers Day today, my son gave me a gift certificate from my favorite garden store, my husband gave me AirPods, and a hacker group in Turkey hijacked my brand new website. (Rest assured! No evidence of hacking anyone’s data on the site but mine.) Instead of enjoying my garden with my AirPods in my ears, I spent more than half the day trying to fix the website problem with no luck. After 25 hours of waiting on tech support, I finally figured out how to fix it myself in less than 20 minutes.
I remember the first time I heard the German word, schadenfreude, which is loosely translated as malicious joy, and means deriving pleasure from other people’s pain and troubles. I was in a workhshop with Nick Bantock, and the class was discussing the awful concept of deriving pleasure from other people’s pain. One student, originally from Switzerland, said, “There is a word for it in German.” Zeitgeist, gestalt…German contains more than a few highly descriptive words for which the literal English translations fall short of the whole meaning. For the next couple of days in Nick’s workshop, every time we dealt with a tough concept, somone would say, “There’s probably a word for it in German.”
We’re all guilty of slight schadenfreude occasionally, especially when we see someone, who has wronged us, get his or her comeuppance. How can one not smirk when seeing a car with a Trump sticker get cut off in traffic? Beyond the satisfying sense of social justice and the odd example that “karma is a bitch” are the sociopaths and narcissists who feed on schadenfreude, particularly when they get to contribute to the cause of the pain. Not content merely to be sadistic in the moment, they continue deriving pleasure from knowing the pain they inflict lasts. Agatha Christie devoted her final Hercule Poirot mystery to the concept, and Poirot, so determined to end suffering wherever he could, made the ultimate sacrifice to stop the perpetrator.
At an event last February (not a workshop), I got into a rather horrid conversation in which a fellow maker suddenly went from current politics to his theory on rape in less than 12 sentences. The friend I was with and I were a bit stunned at his out of the blue, “So, let me ask you something. I think rape is a crime of violence but not of misogyny. What do you think?” My friend’s jaw dropped. I was too stunned at the prospect of chicken soup with assault to reply what I was thinking, that his question was hopelessly gendered and misogynistic in itself.
I started to debate him but quickly realized it would be useless. I was hungry and coming down with a wretched cold that would later turn into bronchitis. I was not on my game, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t want a debate or an argument in the classical sense. He wasn’t interested in hearing another side to his theory. He was interested in the shock value of his question and seeing our immediate discomfort at his assertion.
When the guy left, my friend turned to me with huge eyes and said, “Was he really drunk, or does he have medical memory problems?!?”
“He wasn’t drunk, and I haven’t noticed any memory issues, why?” I was wondering what in her mind could have taken precedence over the obvious elephant he’d left in the room.
“He introduced himself to me 3 times: once after you introduced us, once when you got up from he table for a minute, and then again after you sat back down.”
“Oh, right,” I replied matter of factly. “He just couldn’t cope with the reality that you obviously didn’t know who he was, so he kept fishing, kept hoping you’d say, ‘Oh, you’re _______ !’ in a moment of recognition and stroke his ego.” My friend’s eyes rolled like slot machines. I laughed. Was I now guilty of a touch of schadenfreude at said maker’s loss of ego?
Only later, safe at the hotel, did my friend and I delve into the bigger issue. I told her, “I wanted to ask him how he knew so adamantly that rape is not about misogyny. I should have said, ‘Which end of the stick have you been on that you can be so unfailingly certain?’ What happens when both perpetrator and victim are male? Or when the perpetrator is female? Or when the victim is trans? How can hate at a larger level not be part of the equation of a complete lack of respect and regard for one’s humanity?'”
“He gets off on destablizing women and making us seriously uncomfortable,”my friend said. She’d nailed it. I’d seen the guy in action enough to know he was likely still smirking to himself. Schadenfreude.
The thought that he got off in any way by doing something to me, to us, made me want to take a shower. I felt icky and chided myself for getting my friend and me involved in the conversation in the first place. Then, I realized this was the verbal version of wondering if one is safer in a longer skirt, of wondering if one had sent out mixed signals, if one was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or if politeness to speak was mistaken as a ‘yes’ to say or do whatever came to mind, however hurtful or vicious. Was it personal or merely opportunistic? Did that matter?
The hijacking of my site had a similar ring to it. It is the violation of hundreds of hours of work, the decimation, at least temporarily, of the digital representation of my body of artwork, of my work’s face to the world. I do not equate it with actual physical violence or violation. Nothing sensitive was stolen. No airplanes were left with nowhere to land safely, no money stollen, no life saving medical equipment rendered useless, no one physically hurt. Still, it feels icky, like by putting a WordPress site out for all to see, I invited the attack. I can’t believe I am a big enough fish in the hackers’ eyes to warrant a personal attack. It was opportunistic, the result of some automated search for a large new site with a leak somewhere. My husband reminded me, “Radom acts of violence are still acts of violence.”
So, to those that derive pleasure from my pain, from my ruined chicken soup last winter, my derailed Mothers Day, my angst and stress, my dread at seeing that same jerk occasionally, that which does not break me makes better equipped to take my enemies down. I have stared down death and lived through it. A sad group of wanna-be Hittites replacing my website with a lame picture of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a sweatshirt with a hood is not going to break me. Neither is some narcissist with pathetic social skills.
My husband says I am the most driven person he’s ever known because I persist no matter what. He’s right. I suppose I’m more glass half full than half empty, but it’s because I know something. I know that those who derive pleasure from other’s pain are, at the heart of things, pathetic. However superior and arrogant they come across, they don’t fool me. I know they don’t like their lives or themselves and that is why they need the constant IV drip of pleasure from seeing others suffer. Is this meta-schadenfreude on my part? No, it’s more of a consolation prize than pleasure at the awareness. Truthfully, I’d rather they be happy. If they were, they’d spread that around instead of spreading their own insecurity.