Editor’s Note: A tragedy and the reflection of schadenfruede

Editor’s Note: A tragedy and the reflection of schadenfruede

Last week, tragedy visited our office. Our friend and colleague, Beth Walton, was murdered, apparently by her son. It was like a lightning bolt ripped through the curtain that separates us, newsmakers, from the news. There is nothing to make sense of. Someone we knew and liked, in the prime of her life, is gone, and so are her children. The police are still investigating what they believe to be a family crime, but they have indicated they have little left to say to the media about it. Which is fine with us. We are tired, and our hearts are with Beth’s family and friends.

Leave it to the Germans to coin a word for the human capacity to enjoy the suffering of others: Schadenfruede, which is something like damage-joy. The English language is better designed to describe and dissimilate than to communicate complex emotions, especially the type we don’t even want to have. But everyone knows it’s true. Why else do murder trials and shootings make the headlines? Humans are exhilarated by suffering when it doesn’t affect them directly.

A few blocks up the street, George Huguely was sentenced to 23 years in prison for killing his girlfriend, Yeardley Love. The story clogged headlines for the lion’s share of the past year and drew the attention of major national media outlets. Another feature of Schadenfruede: We most enjoy the suffering of the prominent, the wealthy, the privileged. A preppy murder will command an ocean of ink. But Rachel Bowles, who was killed by her husband around the same time Love died, barely got a mention.

This week’s feature  focuses on UVA’s new Contemplative Science Center: an interdisciplinary, multi-department institute designed to integrate the understanding and practice of yoga and meditation into the University’s curriculum and, more broadly, into the country’s academic fabric. The effort joins the interests of a billionaire couple devoted to yoga, a medical and nursing faculty that employs meditation for healing and grief management, and a religious studies department with expertise in Indian and Himalayan traditions.  As a culture—one shaped fundamentally by Protestant Christian morality—we still contend with Edward Said’s critique of “orientalism.” What is foreign, exotic, new, and unfamiliar to us can no longer be treated as the objects of our desire or revulsion, the muses to our mysteries, or the answers to our prayers. We are a country of many traditions and cultures; as we learn about others, we learn about ourselves.