Schadenfreude” is a word that has captured the imagination in recent years. It means “the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune”. WTF?! Who on earth invents a word like that? It would be crude and simplistic to say “the Germans”. At the same time, language is the vehicle we use to communicate, and cultures invent words to express the ideas they need to express. The Eskimos have over 100 different words for snow.
While it’s hard to know why the Germans needed such a word, when it is borrowed and moves into common usage, it says a lot about society. In this case, it’s reasonable to suggest that there is sufficient pleasure found in other’s misfortune that we need to use a word for it. What an ugly world that needs to express that sentiment. It’s a world where we measure ourselves relative to those around us (perhaps because the public sharing of our lives is so pervasive). It reminds me of the law of relative misery, which says that one’s happiness is measured only relative to others. While self-esteem is important, there are better ways to prop ourselves up than to hunt for others who are not as well off.
There are two antidotes to this malaise:
One is the obvious: follow the adage of Ethics of the Fathers (4:1) “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with their lot”. The emphasis is on “their lot” – the key to a sense of success is to focus inward rather than benchmark ourselves relative to others. By example, it’s interesting to note that professional sport-people rarely compare themselves to others – more often they are competing against themselves – seeking to be better versions of themselves. It is us – the spectators and commentators – who consider rankings important. But in any ranking system, there is room for only one “first”. Everyone else is looking up the ladder at someone better (or perceived as such on that particular ranking). A true sense of wealth and satiation comes from abandoning that mindset.
The second – and perhaps more powerful – antidote is to borrow a beautiful word from a beautiful language that has been ours for hundreds of years – Yiddish. The word – fargin – is classically untranslatable, and means “not to begrudge the success of someone else.” Because to begrudge is a bad thing to do, this literal translation is a double negative – “don’t begrudge”, and often in Yiddish one might say about another person that “they cannot fargin” meaning that they cannot help but begrudge another person’s happiness (which is actually a triple negative).
We can more simply imagine fargin in purely positive terms: “to be joyous with and for the joy of others.” When others are successful, be happy for them (even if you are not as successful). When friends or family celebrate a simcha, celebrate and be happy for them (even if you have little else to be happy about in your own life). It expresses the infectiousness of joy, and its power to lift up not just those directly celebrating, but also those around them.
While schadenfreude leads to a vicious cycle of wanting bad for others to bring them down to our level (and lower), fargin is the direct opposite: a virtuous cycle of joy leading to more joy. So who needs “schadenfreude”, when we have “fargin”?
This is based on an impromptu Dvar Torah given by the author at a Shabbat lunch as part of his son’s pre-wedding celebrations.
In this analysis that crosses over language, culture and morality, David Werdiger considers the meaning of two words – one German and one Yiddish – and the approach to dealing with others that underpins each.
This was also posted at [Times of Israel].