The Curse of Gluckschmerz

February 21, 2018

Pleasure in other's pain.
Linguists and logophiles have long appreciated the twisted delight conveyed by the term "schadenfreude." Specifically, the delight taken in the misfortune of others.
Recently, as my wife and I watched a season's finale of Game of Thrones, schadenfreude came to mind.
In the episode, the loathsome Cersei Lannister -- incestuous mother of tyrants -- was called to task for her crimes. Forced to parade naked through King's Landing. The townspeople given chance to demean, spit upon and revel in her terrible twist of fate. It was not her vulnerability, nor her tears or demoralization that struck me. But the townspeople's hatred. The abject pleasure they took in seeing her demeaned. Tortured. And laid low.
Upon the show's conclusion, you couldn't help but consider the modern corollaries. Today's frequent morality plays in which some character of noble birth or position is brought down by his sins. Forced to publicly repent for the grievous actions of which he's accused. Be he a disgraced politician. A scandalized celebrity. Or some business titan whose misdeeds bring him crashing down.
Consider the many Hollywood types that, until recently, seemed to have the world in their palms. Then along came the #metoo movement. And a litany of actors, comedians, producers and directors were knocked from their zeniths. Laid threadbare in the gallows of public censure. Much to the delight of those who once gazed enviously upon them.
A coarsening of American culture has occurred. Driven, in part, by the mass media. Which lavishes attention upon "stars" of all types, from film to television to radio to music, to constantly opine on all topics. As if they were experts by virtue of being famous. It is one thing to be a famous actor or actress. But that does not make one an expert on solving domestic political dilemmas. Or the Syrian crisis. Nor should they be telling the government how to grow the economy. Or how to design a social program for the poor.
Of course, the media pushes stars to the forefront. And then, when they trip up? The media revels in presiding over their demise.
Just last week, American snowboarder Sean White won his third Olympic gold medal. And no sooner had he descended from the medal podium when a journalist began badgering him about an alleged sexual harassment incident from three years ago. As if they'd spent the last month waiting for him to attain his goal of Olympic glory only so they could then enjoy the spectacle of knocking him from his perch.
When the public sees stars fall from grace, it is ready to pounce. Hungrily seeking a pound of flesh amid the media-driven feeding frenzy.
Psychologists will tell you that envy is less morally reprehensible than schadenfreude. For it is one thing to gaze upon the misfortune of others. Entirely different is the desire to watch them suffer.
Artists have long recognized this complex human condition. As Gore Vidal said, "It is not enough to succeed; others must fail."
It seems, however, that today's America suffers from a different, more abhorrent emotional phenomenon. One not satiated by the celebrity's fall from grace. But, conversely, angrily stirred by her continuing success.
This nation once admired, even emulated, the feats of its most successful. Today? Such success stories are often pronounced guilty by association. Castigated for having reached the pinnacle of some endeavor. Politicians and the media cast aspersions upon the wealthy industrialist. Create conspiracies about the media mogul. Or simply blame the rich for all that ails us. As if, were it not for the nation's wealthiest, all our social ills would have long ago been resolved.
Our politicians stoke the fires. Waging class warfare. Even as many of them achieve vast wealth. But when the cultural kettle boils over, those politicians oft ensure that entrepreneurs and captains of industry end up on the receiving end of a societal beat down. As the media stirs the pot. And the public takes to social media like a modern-day posse comitatus.
These emotions are not drive by schadenfreude, but its antitheses. An illicit feeling for which a name has also been coined. "Gluckshmerz," another German portmanteau, is the linguistic descendant of schadenfreude. Its definition? Experiencing pain from another's pleasure. From the subtle discomfort of seeing a rival procure a coveted position, to the gut-wrenching pain that accompanies the discovery of a lover's infidelity.
Truly, a lid for every pot.
Be it the green-eyed monster of envy, or the gut-wrenching pain of loss. Both feelings emanate from the same area of the brain's frontal lobe. Yet, gluckschmerz strikes me as even more dangerous than schadenfreude. The former springs from a twisted pleasure, but it usually signifies an emotional culmination. The latter, however, only serves to stoke the host's unfettered rage. For the more successful those we despise become, the more anguish we feel. In a perverse, incessant cycle. Until emotions boil over.
The irony?
Americans have collectively become better off these last few years. The U.S. economy continues to create massive amounts of wealth that benefit everyone. Household net worth sits at record highs. In nominal, real and per capita terms. Household debt has significantly declined. The Fed reports that the net worth of U.S. households rose $1.63 trillion in Q1 2015. Reaching an all-time high of $84.9 trillion. After adjusting for inflation and population growth, real per capita net worth reached a new all-time high of $261k. That's 3.3 times what it was 50 years ago.
Even if most of this staggering increase was contained within the accounts of a select few, it would remain the ultimate source of jobs and national prosperity. The ultimate driver for greater standards of living. As our economy produces so much, so efficiently, the fruits of our labors become available to virtually everyone.
Today's billionaires, as well as today's median-wage earners, both have ready access to abundant food sources, clean domiciles, inexpensive travel, cheap entertainment, excellent healthcare, and the ability to communicate with nearly anyone, at any time, worldwide.
Yes, we recognize the advantages of wealth. But all Americans have become infinitely better off than we were even a few decades ago.
Aside from the nation's most impoverished (a global shortcoming), the rest of society has become vastly wealthier and healthier than it's ever been. The deficiencies of unbalanced wealth accumulation --- often unsolvable contrivances created by those seeking to self-servingly pit one facet of society against one another -- remain as much myth as fact. For while tax-payer funded government programs often lack historical evidence of treating the root of most problems, the charities supported by the generosity of America's middle and affluent classes continue to lift the nation's neediest off the mats.
Of course, this goes unreported.
A quick study of our nation's alleged leadership leaves no doubt as to the source of our young people's tainted regard for the nation's wealthiest. Class warfare has become part of the nation's political vernacular. As have the ugly dynamics of identity politics. So conferring upon America's youth the odious curse of gluckschmerz.
Our politicians regularly insinuate that the nation's most financially accomplished serve as the root of all evil. Cultural outlets bombard our youth with the lessons of gluckschmerz. Musical acts. Magazines. Even their college professors spill regular venom towards society's upper crust. This, as opposed to exhorting our kids to study, learn from and emulate those of the highest virtue, character and capability. Some of whom are wealthy. Some of whom are not. Because such character traits tend to be the perfect cocktail for society's most notable achievements.
It is incumbent that we teach our young people that life, even at its best, is often a struggle. That a great deal of our growth comes when we put our shoulders into what's painful. When we are forced to step beyond the bounds of our experience and commit to something difficult and new. To master a skill. Build an enterprise. Pursue a worthwhile endeavor. We must first confront pain, hardship and fear. Success is a gift granted not to those defeated by hardship, but to those who are sharpened by it.
By teaching as much, then perhaps every young American can eventually realize that even under life's harshest conditions, we can struggle valiantly. And through that struggle we may, someday, reach new heights of nobility, wisdom and virtue.

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