Recently, a close friend told me that he had to cut our conversation short because he had tickets to see Steve Martin and Edie Brickell in concert. He clearly expected me to covet his immense good fortune, though my immediate reaction to this statement was, “Better you than I.” Then, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Even, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
This was not the first time I had found myself in such a situation. In recent times, a number of dear, dear friends have gloated over having miraculously come into possession of tickets to see (and, presumably, hear) Kenny Chesney, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, and Ozzy Osbourne, all the while expressing pity that I would not be able to participate in these glorious outings.
In fact, these are all soirées I would view as tantamount to being serenaded by Lucifer, Moloch, Medusa, and Baal, if they unexpectedly joined forces to construct the world’s most sinister barbershop quartet. Oddly, much as I hate to admit it, I have friends who have seen (and, presumably, enjoyed) the Machiavellianly insipid Jersey Boys; friends who have attended the Indianapolis 500; friends who regularly go to see Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks—together—and expect me to be deeply envious. These are friends, it goes without saying, who have many other fine qualities.
In all of these cases, the feeling I experience when told that friends are attending such events—events they expect to inspire a near-thermonuclear level of jealousy in me—is a sense of relief, a sense that I have dodged a pop-cultural bullet (in Chesney’s case, a dum-dum), and a sense that a beneficent and truly loving Creator is sitting in the heavens watching over me, shielding me from the most grievous misfortune.
“Somebody up there likes me,” I say to myself when told that a bosom buddy—alas!—can’t offer me a spare ticket to see Faith Hill, Stomp!, Mötley Crüe, or a one-woman show about the beatified Texas governor Ann Richards: “Thank you, my sweet Lord. Thank you. Once again, I can see that you’ve got my back.”
We are all familiar with the concept of schadenfreude, the secret pleasure one derives from the misfortune of others. Indeed, a case can be made that, without schadenfreude, life would not be possible. Certainly not mine. It never ceases to delight me when the Los Angeles Lakers get knocked out of the playoffs. There is nothing I enjoy more than seeing spoiled, self-indulgent movie stars get sent to the slammer for substance abuse. When told that an inept peer has been bounced from his high-paying job at some glossy magazine, I am beside myself with glee. I feel like Sitting Bull, relaxing on a vacant bluff poised high atop the Rosebud, watching Custer take it on the chin at Little Bighorn: I sit back and enjoy the ride.
Yet, lest I be deemed a malignant misanthrope and sebaceous spoilsport, let me point out that I, too, have been the victim of schadenfreude: When developers started building grotesque, Sardanapalusian McMansions just a few yards from my demure, quietly understated Colonial, other towns-people chuckled; when the Philadelphia Eagles lost three straight NFC championship games—tying a record—fans of the pathetic New York Jets smirked; when one of my books stiffed—no, two—no, a whole bunch of them—colleagues tittered.
I fully understand that deriving pleasure from others’ misfortunes is a basic human urge, so long as the misfortune is not proctologic or post-nuclear in nature—so long as it does not involve an unexpected dingo attack or leprosy. We all enjoy seeing high-rollers get cut down to size. We all enjoy seeing the tall poppies whittled down from time to time. We all enjoy seeing the mighty brought low.
It’s only when you want to see the low poppies, or all the poppies, mowed down that things get ugly. But that’s all schadenfreude. That’s not what I am talking about here. What I’m talking about in this context is the exquisite pleasure one derives from seeing other people go and enjoy things that would be unremitting torture if you had to do them yourself. Especially if you had to pay for the tickets. And the parking.
It is the joy one derives from not having to do things that make other people joyous. Here’s where human language falls down on the job. Especially foreign languages. Why is there no word like freudejerseyschadenfreudeboys, or schadenjoshgrobanfreude, to describe “the immense delight one derives from not having to hear people with even less talent than Il Divo warble treacly Italian love songs while you’re trying to eat dinner” or “the secret delight one takes from not having to hear Madonna sing, much less watch her dance”?
Why is there no word to describe “the positive rapture a man experiences when told that he has been deliberately excluded from a weeklong golf outing to Myrtle Beach with a bunch of frat boys from Duke”? Or “the preposterous, untrammeled, and inexhaustible joy one feels racing through one’s nervous system when told that the Hillary Clinton fundraiser will go on as scheduled, but that you are not invited”?
The closest term I can come up with is la joie de l’homme qui brûle, meaning the “boundless ecstasy one experiences from having seen another year go by without ever seriously considering attending Burning Man.”
Maybe I should keep thinking about this.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.