Schadenfreude, struggling and an insightful soliloquy

"Schadenfreude" is a term introduced to me by the very erudite musical, "Avenue Q."

Its technical definition is taking pleasure ("freude") in another person's pain ("schaden").

Or, as the song lyrics go, "When I see how sad you are, it makes me sort of happy!"

I've seen schadenfreude at work, and wrote the better part of a column about it a few years ago. After a bit of a scheduling snafu that caused Ainsley to miss dress rehearsal for her school's variety show, she took great comfort in the story of my friend who was eating licorice backstage when he was supposed to be on stage, which had been told to me immediately after I went on stage to sing a solo without my microphone.

"The world needs people like you and me who've been knocked around by fate," the Gary Coleman character sings in the musical. " 'Cause when people see us, they don't want to be us, and that makes them feel great."

True, for sure. Amusing, definitely. But when you stop to think about, it seems kind of mean.

I've been thinking about schadenfreude lately, in the context of why we feel better when we know other people have gone through the same things we have. Tom Van Winkle talked about that during our conversation about life at the Hinsdale Humane Society during 2020. He said, to paraphrase, that it's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you know other people are suffering, too.

Is that schadenfreude? Or is there more to it?

I read a passage recently that talks about what happens when we come together to heal. We share and weave our stories together to create a deeper, truer picture of our circumstances. We remember that no one is alone on their journey. And in reaching out to others, we rediscover the hope we thought we had lost.

And then I remembered one of my favorite (and there are many!) soliloquies from "West Wing." Josh is struggling after being shot during an assassination attempt on President Bartlett. Leo stops by to offer him encouragement and tells him this story.

"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

"A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey, you. Can you help me out?'

"The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?'

"The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a friend walks by. 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?'

"And the friend jumps in the hole.

"Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.' "

Maybe there are times, as "Avenue Q" contends, when we just want to clap when a waitress drops a tray of glasses or laugh when figure skaters fall down on their you-know-whats. But I believe much of the time when we see someone who is struggling what we feel is relief - relief that we've found someone else who has been in the hole.

And if we're lucky, they'll help us find the way out.

- Pamela Lannom is editor

of The Hinsdalean.

Readers can email her at

[email protected].

Author Bio

Author photo

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean