|Doubtful that anyone was envious of our year in Switzerland. 😀|
I had a friend in college who was the ultimate procrastinator. He never seemed to have time to work on his assignments until the very last minute. We were in a class together that required a fairly major paper. I began weeks before the due date, gathering information to include in my thesis. I kept bugging him about his progress, and he always responded that he hadn’t yet begun.
The night before the paper was due, my friend stayed up the whole night to write his paper. I had finished my work in good time and was well rested when we appeared in class together the next day. He was bleary eyed, but ready to turn in his now completed work.
I was sure that I would get a better grade on my paper since I spent several weeks on it and didn’t slap it together the night before. To my surprise and great chagrin, he received a better grade than I.
I wanted so badly to rejoice in his lower grade because I thought that was what he earned. Rejoicing in the misfortune of others is schadenfreude. This German word describes the most normal reaction that we humans have when someone falters. “They got what they deserved,” we are quick to point out.
What if I had rejoiced with my friend on his good fortune instead? What if I had invited him out to celebrate his good grade? Doing this would be a concept called “mudita” in Buddhist tradition. I read about this idea in Douglas Abrams’ book The Book of Joy. The book records reflections between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu on the subject. The discussion is how to mitigate envy that keeps us from experiencing joy. Instead of being envious of the neighbor who just purchased a BMW, we should rejoice with them in their good fortune.
In the familiar story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31), the older son wallows in self-pity when his father shows unmerited favor on his wayward son’s behalf. The older son was hoping his younger brother would get what he deserved and work as a servant for his father. He wanted to rejoice in his brother’s punishment. That is schadenfreude.
Instead, the father showed mercy on his rebellious son. He gave him what he needed rather than what he deserved. The banquet he gave for him showed that he was rejoicing that his lost son was found. If the older brother had been able to celebrate his brother’s good fortune, he would have shown the concept of mudita. But like so many of us, he couldn’t. We are overcome with envy.
Imagine how much easier life for us would be if we could celebrate the achievements of others rather than be envious of them. As a spiritual practice, we should make a list of all the times we were jealous of someone else’s achievements or acquisitions in the past few months, then redirect our energy to congratulations rather than envy. We would probably see the other person in a totally different light and help ourselves be much more contented with who we are and what we have. There is a reason that one of the ten commandments is about coveting. Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” That’s a pretty long list. If we could celebrate our neighbor’s house, his marriage, his mode of transportation or other possessions, according to Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, we would be much happier.
Schadenfreude, rejoicing in your friend’s or neighbor’s misfortune, or mudita, rejoicing with them in their good fortune. Which will it be?