By Shabina S. Khatri
When it comes to entertainment, I would take the Three Stooges over Chris Rock any day of the week. That’s because to me, physical comedy is hilarity in its finest form. Though it may seem mindless to watch grown men smack, trip and thump each other, the rationale behind the trio’s shtick is actually quite profound. Larry, Moe and Curly were wildly popular with the masses because they understood a very fundamental human truth – we love to watch others fall.
The German actually have a word for this inclination: schadenfreude. Taken from schaden (damage, harm) and freude (joy), the phrase refers to the “shameful joy” or sick pleasure we feel when misfortune befalls others. Schadenfreude can also mean the feeling of gratitude we derive when encountering people who are worse off than ourselves – so that rather than feeling sorry for those people, we feel blessed that the misfortune belongs to them and not us.
It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Though I am loathe to believe that I am capable of such cold selfishness, I must admit that I’ve experienced schadenfreude on many an occasion. When I see people like George Bush choke on pretzels, for example, or hear about the latest celebrity break-up, empathy is certainly not the first emotion that comes to mind. I don’t like Dubya and I don’t like many celebrities, and since I’m simply observing their pain (and not causing it) it’s ok for me to quietly enjoy the show – right?
Not so fast. While it is acceptable to feel satisfaction when justice is served, we must take care not to derive glee from envy. For instance, in the case of Martha Stewart, we may take pleasure in the fact that she was punished for committing fraud. But we must consider whether our joy also comes from a desire to see such a talented, successful, wealthy (and annoying) woman fall. Is she annoying because she’s done so well for herself? Do we feel good because she feels humiliated?
These are serious questions that need to be applied to our own community interactions. How often does hearing about the misfortunes of our fellow brothers or sisters improve our moods? Or, on the flipside, how often does hearing about the successes of our fellow brothers or sisters ruin our moods? That’s taking “misery loves company” to a whole other level, don’t you think? In these cases, schadenfreude has its roots in jealousy, which Allah (SWT) alludes to in Surah Al-Imraan: “If good befalls you, it grieves them, and if an evil afflicts you, they rejoice at it (3:120).”
In our community, many people hesitate to spread good news about themselves or their loved ones for fear of catching the “evil eye.” I have friends who, if they are pregnant with boys, won’t disclose the baby’s gender until it is born, so as to avoid the jealous stares of other women. I know people who make intention for Hajj but don’t want to incur the envy of those who perhaps cannot afford to go to Hajj, so they avoid mentioning their plans until the last possible second.
While these may seem like extreme examples, consider your own experiences with the jealousy of others. Have you ever put off telling someone about that promotion, that new car, that engagement announcement, not just out of humility but simply out of fear that the person you’re about to tell won’t be happy for you? Are you trying to avoid seeing the barely concealed disappointment on someone’s face when you tell them that your child was accepted to a top-notch college, or that your family will be moving to a nicer neighborhood? This is more than just a bad case of keeping up with the Joneses (or the Ahmads, or the Khans…)
It appears that our issue is two-fold. The first problem is that human beings are inherently jealous. Schadenfreude has existed since the beginning of time. Consider the pleasure Shaitan must have felt, for example, when Adam (R) and Eve (R) were cast out of Jannah. Or the satisfaction that Yusuf (R)’s brothers, jealous of the attention their father lavished upon him, derived when throwing him into the well. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t fight this tendency and its damaging effects on our souls. To protect ourselves against the jealousy of others, the Prophet (SAW) recommends the frequent recitation of dhikr, as well as the last two surahs of the Qur’an. Al-Falaq implores Allah (SWT) for refuge “from the evil of the envious when he envies” and Al-Naas seeks Allah (SWT)’s protection from “the evil of the sneaking whisperer, who whispereth in the hearts of men.”
But what about stopping ourselves from casting the evil eye? If the first problem we have is that we are naturally jealous, the second is that we are jealous of all the wrong things. In the Prophet (SAW)’s time, people used to compete in good deeds, while today, we compete in material possessions.
So to avoid spreading envy, perhaps all we need is a little perspective. We can start by directing those jealous feelings in the right direction. According to the Prophet (SAW), we are allowed to be jealous of two types of people – the person “whom Allah has given the Qur’an and recites it throughout the night and throughout the day;” and the “person whom Allah has given wealth, that he gives out throughout the night and throughout the day (Bukhari).”
So unless you’re hating on someone for praying too much or giving too much charity (and unless their actions motivate you to compete as such), then understand that indulging in an envy-induced schadenfreude coma is a big no-no. If you still can’t stop yourself, the Prophet (SAW) advises us to perform wudu to be cleansed of the feeling.
Insh’Allah by becoming more aware of ourselves and our own inclinations, we can work to rid our community of the viciousness that schadenfreude induces. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t enjoy watching the Three Stooges in the meantime…