Who knew that LeBron James, the most physically gifted athlete of his generation, would become the poster child for schadenfreude? Having taken narcissism to heights that make Donald Trump seem modest, LeBron managed to generate the kind of vitriol never before seen in the history of sport. When the Heat lost the NBA finals to the Mavericks, the resulting explosion of schadenfreude could be heard at the other end of the Milky Way. It was as if God had said once again, "And let there be light."
By now we all know that "schadenfreude" means reveling in the misery of others. It's a German word that does not have an English equivalent. We've permanently borrowed it from the Germans, and that's fine. We never could have created a word that sounds quite like "schadenfreude." Certain words sound like what they mean. "Exasperate" sounds like the experience of being frustrated. "Empathy" sounds like a positive emotional connection. And "schadenfreude" sounds like what it is: enjoying somebody else's misery and misfortune.
Schadenfreude has two forms. The first is collective. The LeBron instance reflects this kind of socially sanctioned mean-spiritedness. LeBron -- and countless others -- have acted in ways that violated certain principles of appropriate conduct. These breaches of ethics, morals or, in LeBron's case, self-aggrandizing behavior, allow us to "pile on" without any consequences to our self-concept. We can still consider ourselves to be good people while simultaneously enjoying every moment of their misery. And we all know how enjoyable these collective schadenfreude moments are. They are delicious.
The second form of schadenfreude is the personal psychological version. With an obvious pun intended, let's call it "schadenfreudian." While Freud did not speak directly to this issue, Carl Jung, in his discussion of archetypes, talked about the shadow, the darker side of the human psyche. Let's explore further.
Who hasn't had one of the following kinds of experiences? Somebody you don't particularly like -- a co-worker or former lover who rejected you -- had something disappointing happen to them, something that made them miserable. The co-worker might have been fired or denied a promotion. Someone else might have recently rejected your ex-lover. In both cases all the ingredients are there for a let's-pretend-I'm-not-really-enjoying-this, schadenfreudian moment.
Unlike collective schadenfreude, a schadenfreudian moment isn't shared with others. No, it's a moment of silent glee. We all do it; we just don't talk about it. Dark chocolate never tasted so good.
When I first started writing this piece, I expected to find a bunch of websites devoted to schadenfreude. Surprisingly, they don't exist. But I did come across something far more interesting. My sources tell me that Comcast/NBC, Donald Trump and Darth Vader are in discussions to have a new series of "The Apprentice." It will be called "The Dark Apprentice," with the theme being, of course, schadenfreude. Fortunately, I was able to obtain a transcript of the initial meeting between Darth and Donald discussing the show. The following is their conversation:
Donald: Isn't that contraption you wear on your head kind of hot and uncomfortable?
Darth: Donald, do you really want to get into a discussion of what's sitting on the top of your head?
Donald: Good point.
Darth: Let's talk about my show.
Donald: Perhaps I'm missing something, Darth, but the show is mine. My show, my concept, my "you're fired" line, maybe the greatest line in the history of television. It's all about me, I'm The Donald.
Darth: Donald, Donald, Donald, take a few deep breaths and try and remain calm. If that doesn't work I've got some extra Klonopin. I've spoken to the people at NBC/Comcast and, well, they see the show a bit differently, given my reputation as the Godfather of Schadenfreude.
Donald: OK, but I still get 50 percent of the gross, and the line "you're fired" is still mine. There's no way you can deliver that line the way I can. Agreed?
Darth: I've always admired your negotiating skills, Donald. Done.
Donald: Who should we get as contestants for the show?
Darth: Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Cheney, Ann Coulter, that nasty guy who left "American Idol," Imus, Keith Olbermann and maybe Martha Stewart.
Donald: You know, I'm thinking that "The Dark Apprentice" is only the first in what could be a series of "Darth and Donald" shows. One idea just popped up from my very creative unconscious while we've been talking. How's this? With Oprah gone from daytime, the field is wide open. Following in her footsteps, we could do a personal development talk show with the theme being: build your self-esteem by learning how to make the people you hate miserable. Who would you rather watch, Katie Couric talk to Newt Gingrich or us? C'mon.
Darth: Donald, you're brilliant.
Donald: I know that, Darth, and it's nice to be appreciated. I never thought I would have a partner, but I sense a kindred spirit in you. Let's go make a lot of money.
Darth: Donald, that's why I'm here. The universe was beginning to bore me. It's time to make the kind of money Spielberg and Lucas made off of me. Let the show begin. Oh, and one other thing.
Donald: What's that?
Darth: Don't ever ask to see my birth certificate.