“Shadenfreude”: Sometimes human nature really bugs me

Now and then I’ve heard friends mention a German word that dares to name what English-speakers have no word to describe (though I don’t doubt that we have all experienced it). That noun, “Shadenfreude,” combines “Shaden,” meaning “adversity,” and “Freude,” meaning joy; according to my old college mate, Stephen Bucher (on Facebook). The combination denotes the experience of joy inspired by the misfortunes of others.

I was discussing this with friends on Facebook, and my dear sister could not fathom such an emotion. Does it mean “Misery loves company?” she commented about “Shadenfreude.”

“No, it’s more like being happy for someone else’s misfortunes. A very nasty kind of thing,” my high school chum, Gaye Spetka had to spell it out again for my incredulous sibling. I’m not sure yet that my sis was receiving the signals.

I love my sister’s innocence. Growing up under the same roof as preacher’s kids, we had been taught the Greek word for “Agape” love, another word for which there is no English parallel. We had learned that that particular kind of love privileges the good of others above your own. This highest kind of love is the opposite of “Shadenfreude,” as it turns out, and it was the standard to follow, according to many a pulpiteer under whom my sisters and I sat.

Not a bad standard, I think, not at all, though I have to admit, “Shadenfreude” comes much more naturally to most of us. Confound our human nature. I am grateful for those nouns that articulate a better way.

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2 thoughts on ““Shadenfreude”: Sometimes human nature really bugs me

  1. Deb Lund says:

    At the Whidbey Island Writers Conference recently, Garth Stein shared research that shows our country’s decline in empathy. The purpose of sharing that view in his keynote was that we as writers provide opportunities for people to experience empathy through our characters. As I children’s writer, I especially like that idea, but I’m still troubled by the thought that we as a nation suffer from lack of empathy. And hooray that your sister can’t comprehend the other extreme of empathy. Maybe I’m a bit more like her in that my heart breaks so easily when hearing people’s stories of misfortune. Maybe I lead a sheltered life in the education and kid lit worlds, because I’m not yet believing most people are happy about the misfortunes of others. In fiction, many of us eat it up, but it’s for the emotional reaction and connection, a different thing. I wonder if it’s different for people who read… Or maybe people who are empathetic and happy about the good fortune of others are more drawn to reading fiction. Hmmmm… Thanks for the opportunity to ponder this!

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