“Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone,” written by Father Martin, is a Jesuit priest.
I used to walk past the refrigerated morgue trucks parked outside Mount Sinai Hospital, barely a block from my Jesuit community, in the early days of the pandemic in New York City.
Everyone seemed to be disguising, keeping their distance, washing their hands, and wiping off packed groceries back then. And everyone hoped (or prayed) for a vaccination.
Then, somehow, it arrived. Even more astonishing, some people who were qualified for these medical miracles refused. Many people have died as a result of refusing the vaccine. Many more people will perish.
Both the famous and the not-so-famous, including perhaps some of your friends or family members, have succumbed to Covid after defying nearly every reputable scientist and physician’s advice, even as misinformation spreads: getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance are the best protections from Covid, and they also help protect others, especially the sick, elderly, or immunocompromised.
Vaccination, according to Pope Francis, is an “act of love.” It’s not just about you, to say it more frankly than the Holy Father.
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It’s no surprise, however, that when a public figure who has failed to do this act of love — especially when that person has loudly raged against these life-saving procedures – dies of Covid, some people are quick to remark, “I told you so.” A few go even further, insulting or even taunting those who have died.
This tumult of intense emotions can be confusing: We watch someone refusing vaccines or masks (which frustrates us), risking others (which enrages us), possibly even endangering ourselves (which scares us), and then dying — which should sadden us but, as some of us are startled to discover, does not. It feels unethical, but it also seems reflexive, to feel justified by someone’s death. Human.
There are various ideas as to why humans developed a proclivity for schadenfreude, the German phrase for delighting in another’s misery. Perhaps our cave-dwelling forefathers felt similarly when they saw an opponent approach a saber-toothed tiger despite repeated warnings and end up as an afternoon feast. “You get what you deserve, Og!”
The schadenfreude many people feel in response to the deaths of anti-vaccine campaigners is a consequence of the country’s divisiveness, according to Colin Wayne Leach, a psychology professor at Barnard College who has studied schadenfreude and gloating. “It’s witnessing your opponents suffer as a result of their beliefs in numerous ways.” That is the sweetest justice, and it is partly why the other side finds it so fulfilling.”
Many people get satisfaction in expressing (or thinking): “See?” whatever its evolutionary roots may be. “I was correct.” After months of attempting to persuade anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and anti-social distancers that lifesaving measures are both for their own benefit and the good of others, people’s frustrations are starting to show.
Across the ideological spectrum, there is schadenfreude. Laura Ingraham, a Fox News contributor who frequently espouses “Christian values,” recently praised the news that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had tested positive with the coronavirus despite having been vaccinated and boosted.
The issue is that even a slight case of schadenfreude is the polar opposite of what Christians consider to be a “Christian value.” Instead of celebrating our adversaries’ misfortunes, Jesus instructed us to pray for them. He urged us to look after the ill rather than mock them. According to Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus is crucified beside two thieves, he says to one of them, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” not “That’s what you get.” Schadenfreude is a value that is not shared by Christians. It’s not even a moral value in the loosest sense.
To establish my position, I could mention a number of philosophers, theologians, and wise voices from various religions and traditions around the world. Instead, I’m going to recover a word that has largely vanished from our lexicon: mean. Crowding around someone’s agony or death is the furthest thing from a moral act. It’s inhumane.
When schadenfreude is indulged in on a frequent basis, it has the effect of distorting the soul. It takes away our ability to empathize with individuals with whom we disagree. It makes us less compassionate. It “hardens” our hearts, to use language from both the Old and New Testaments. I know that schadenfreude over anti-vaxxers’ deaths is a dead-end, no matter how much I disagree with them.
Some may exclaim, “Come on!” “It’s a very natural reaction.” True, yet our emotions are often beyond our control. It’s natural to become enraged if someone coughs in your face on the metro purposefully (or carelessly). At the very least, for a few moments.
But how you deal with those feelings — whether you give in to them, prolong them, or amplify them — is a moral choice. When a fellow train rider coughs in your face, you don’t have to punch him to communicate your rage. Allowing your emotions to take you anywhere they want is something a baby does, not something an adult does.
A passage from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” comes to mind when it comes to schadenfreude. Charles Ryder’s dotty father is having a dinner party at his house. Another guest chuckles as the father names someone whose business has failed.
“Is his tragedy a source of amusement for you?” Charles’ father responds with a response.
It’s a fun scene, probably not designed to have the same weight as other moral choices scenes in Waugh’s work. But it’s been with me all these years. Don’t find merriment, glee, or satisfaction in the pain of others. It is impolite to act in this manner. It’s unethical. And you might be the unfortunate one day.
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