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Strange but True: Joy in others' pain is a taboo reality in American society

Bill Sones and Rich Sones: Few people will readily admit to taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, but the truth is that joy in someone else’s pain — known by the German word “schadenfreude” — permeates our society.
BY BILL SONES AND RICH SONES, PH.D., For The Oklahoman Modified: May 19, 2014 at 7:15 pm •  Published: May 20, 2014
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STRANGE BUT TRUE

Q. Fact or not: In 1920, Babe Ruth hit more home runs by himself than everybody else in the Major League put together.

A. Not quite factual but pretty close. Actually, according to howstuffworks.com, the Babe’s “final tally of 54 home runs for that year was higher than the total of 14 of 15 other major league teams.” Only the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Bambino with their 64 homers.

All told, the Sultan of Swing stroked one of every seven homers hit in the American League. AL runner-up George Sisler had just 19 homers, while National League champ Cy Williams hit a mere 15. In fact, only 15 major leaguers hit as many as 10 homers that season. As the website puts it, “Babe had set power standards the likes of which baseball had never seen.”

Q: When does pain bring on subtle waves of joy?

A: When the pain is not yours but that of another person you have long envied, says Richard H. Smith in “The Joy of Pain.” Few people will readily admit to taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, but the truth is that joy in someone else’s pain — known by the German word “schadenfreude” — permeates our society. As novelist Gore Vidal once confessed, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Or Smith offers this counterpoint, “Every time a friend fails, I am more alive.”

Mark Twain, in his autobiography “Life on the Mississippi,” recalls growing up in Hannibal, Mo., where every boy wanted to be a riverboat pilot. One talented boy had the job, eliciting in Twain and friends a hostile envy. After the boy suffered a misfortune on his riverboat, Twain described their reaction: “When his boat blew up at last, it diffused a tranquil contentment among us such as we had not known for months.”

Though envy is a universal emotion, “admitting envy, even in our private thoughts, is to concede inferiority,” which most of us resist, Smith adds. In fact, we are well equipped and well practiced with defenses against such assaults on our self-image — which is why most of us can believe that we are better than average even though this is a mathematical impossibility.

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