By Jake Block
Enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.
— Webster’s Dictionary
Shlemiel and Schlimazel (Yiddish from German)
A Schlemiel is “a stupid, awkward, or unlucky person.”
A Schlimazel is “a consistently unlucky or accident-prone person.”
— Webster’s Dictionary
There is an old Yiddish joke that a shlemiel is the man who finds dog shit on his sidewalk, and the schlimazel is the man who steps in it. The man who laughs at them both is indulging in schadenfreude.
“What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a wordexpressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities ofothers; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word is found. … In the Greek epikhairekakia, in the German,’Schadenfreude.’”
— “On the Study of Words,” [Richard C. Trench,1852]
We all are probably guilty of it at one time or another, and who can blame us? It’s become a “GOTCHA” world, where everyone is looking for the dirt on someone so they can drop their bombs and get a little bounce in their self-esteem at the cost of another, rather than doing something that might legitimately make themselves stand out in a crowd. John knows that Mary secretly recycled an old recipe that the company had rejected in the past, but now that public tastes had evolved, it was a product that was gaining traction, especially amongst “millennials” in todays market place. Now, had Mary disclosed how her “discovery” had come about, she wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much notoriety as it did when she simply said nothing, and let people think what they would. A crime of omission is still, in he eyes of most, a crime, and in the eyes of a major manufacturing company, a cash liability to the legitimate inventor of the product. John’s disclosure, in the end, caused Mary to be demoted, with a resultant cut in pay, which was bad enough, but John’s smirking face when she was “busted by the man” was rough. John even likened her plight to “slipping on a banana peel.” Schadenfreude.
In the American West, during the Native American Indian wars and the continuing battles of expansion between the United States and the indigenous tribes west of the Missouri River, many died in bloody combat, but the Indians sometimes played less lethal games with their enemies in the form of “counting coup.” Counting coup was a way of bolstering one’s own reputation and prowess in battle while belittling and laughing at the enemy that they tormented during their “games.”
Counting coup involved getting close to the enemy and “touching them” with a painful and insulting slap or blow with a close combat weapon, such as a stick or war club. This practice was considered to be one of the highest honors that a warrior could gain on the field of battle, and the number of times that they successfully counted coup upon the enemy was recorded with notches on elaborately decorated and carved sticks or canes that would accompany them into battle so that everyone could see who they were and appreciate their bravery in the turmoil. When not in battle, the coup sticks occupied a place of honor on the wall of the warrior’s lodge, teepee or wickiup.
It was schadenfreude on a different level, and one could argue a better way to settle differences than a battle axe to the head or an arrow through the heart. The enemy was humiliated, the point was made, superiority demonstrated, and no one was really hurt. Walking Crow or Wooden Leg gained face as great and brave warriors, and Kneeling Calf lost face, took his lumps, but gained a valuable lesson in humility.
I think that this phenomenon of schadenfreude is in some ways a coping mechanism that people use to laugh in the face of a feeling of helplessness, because on some level, we’re all shlemiels or schlimazels waiting for that pile of dog shit to foul our shoes or that banana peel to land us flat on our backs in a crowd. There’s a sight of relief when we can be glad that it’s them, and not us, that takes the embarrassing fall from grace, and at some level a feeling of superiority that it COULD have been us, but we outwitted the puzzle or trap that was set in our path, just as it was for those who missed it and paid the price. It steels us for future pitfalls, and reminds us that no matter how strong or prepared we are in our daily lives, it only takes a moment’s distraction to bring us down.
It’s ironic that the very term schadenfreude can be either malicious or it can be almost gleeful. In one sense, we can revel in seeing one get their comeuppance by failing miserably at a job that we once failed miserably at, ourselves, but the idea of projecting schadenfreude upon someone and wishing them ill is supposed to be beneath us as empathic and benevolent beings. Would that be true… but we all know that there’s nothing that human beings like more than to see someone else take a pratfall at the most inopportune time, bringing them embarrassment and ridicule, while we’re there to take it all in and stifle our laughter, only to have it erupt into the loudest in the crowd.
But there are times when looking down upon the misfortunes of someone feels good, especially if they deserve it. The idea of disgraced Congressman Anthony Wiener sending photographs of his “wiener” to women in his sexting scandal is ludicrous on its face, and the outrageous nature of the scandal that followed did have its humorous elements, even amidst the seriousness of the Congressman’s indiscretions. Watching him fall could easily be written off as very deserving, and a testament to the depths that such a fool could descend.
So, it’s true that infamously corrupted figures getting theirs in some comical way brings a lightness to a tragic episode that can ease the pain that it has caused, but runs the risk of humanizing the inhumanity that can come from the madness of race, religion, politics, etc. For example, there’s not much humor to be found in the actions of an Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, et al. While many comedians will tell you that there are no subjects that don’t lend themselves to humor, I could contend that some, such as these, would be extremely difficult to humanize in such a way. In the case of such horrific examples of failed humanity, we certainly might rejoice in their demise, but finding humor in the vein of schadenfreude would be quite unlikely.
But then in some politicians we’ve seen within our lifetimes who have fallen from grace in the public eye, gales of schadenfreude fueled laughter have become the staples of late night TV comedians. From Nixon to Trump, we’ve seen the nobility of the Presidency take a nose dive and while it’s sad and a bit tragic, it’s hard not to find some black humor in the generation of flawed personalities that have sat at the same desk in the same Oval Office as John F. Kennedy and other Presidents who served before. Since the time of Kennedy, few politicians have not taken their lumps in office, and rightfully so, leading even the most common of man to think, “Is this what we have come to?”
In the end, it seems that life itself is a study in schadenfreude in which we all live with constant wry incredulity at the world in which we live. And it’s hard to make a case that any of us are not the schlemiel or the schlimazel of some almost Marx Brothers-like farce being acted out on the world stage. We, none of us, seem to have any claim to superiority, as we stand in judgement of those we put in charge of us with a promise that they will take care us us and make our lives better… somehow… in the midst of their endless streams of darkly comedic missteps. All we can do is take our laughter when we can and be glad that we’re too far removed and too aware to ever fall into the traps that await everyone else. Not us…
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God