Sunday, February 8, 2015

Enjoying the Misfortune of Others

"Traveling the Path Together"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

It seems as if the media can't get enough of the newly emerging story about news anchor, Brian Williams, who has now taken some time off because he either exaggerated or lied about a story in which he claimed he was "attacked" on a helicopter during the Iraq war. He may ultimately be forced to resign. 

While I certainly don't applaud dishonesty from a respected news reporter, the thing that bothers me  most about this story is how much glee so many people seem to be taking from Mr, Williams'  apparent "fall from grace." 

For me, it all points to a darker and less noble side of our human condition - taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.  I think this happens all the time. In fact if I am to be totally honest I see this in myself at times.  We hear about some high-level official who has been charged with a DUI or we hear gossip about the next door neighbor who is breaking up with his wife,  or we learn of a colleague who was fired because of accusations of embezzlement, and this kind of news often produces an odd and even dark sense of underlying (but usually never expressed) self-satisfaction. 

I'm not exactly sure why this happens, perhaps when we hear of  another's pain or humiliation we secretly rejoice that the same thing didn't happen to "me." Or perhaps when we hear of the fall of people in "higher places," we are glad that they have been "taken down a few pegs." At any rate, taking pleasure in the misfortune of another is always a pure act of the ego, always contributing to the tearing apart of relationships; and relationship is what the spiritual journey is all about.  

We never walk a spiritual path alone, we always walk hand-in-hand with one another, taking special care to help along those who may have fallen or lost their way.

In his famous letter to the Corinthians (often quoted at weddings), St Paul celebrates the qualities of genuine love. There is one verse that especially speaks to me today:

Love doesn't keep score of the sins of others.
Love doesn't revel when others grovel. 

This verse pretty much says it all for me. The spiritual path is a path of love because "God" is "Love." When we rejoice in the misfortunes of another, when we "revel while others grovel," we are walking in the opposite direction from the path of love. 

I am reminded of a little wisdom story from the "Sayings" of the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers:

Once there was a meeting of some monks who gathered to discuss the case of a guilty brother. Throughout the meeting the monks were all too willing to list that brother's sins,  but the old "abba" just sat there quietly taking it all in.

After the meeting the wise old abba went outside and before he made his journey home, he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulders. Then he put some sand in another sack and he carried it in front of him.

'What are you doing?' asked the monks.

The old man replied, 'The basket of sand on my back is filled with my own faults, and they are many, but I put it on my back where I can forget about them. The basket with sand in front of me are the sins of my guilty brother,  and since I carry them in front of me I can always see and judge them. 

This is not right, I should put my own faults in front of me as I travel along the way. 

When the monks heard this, they knew they had been taught a great wisdom.  


  1. Great contemplation. I was shocked and then disappointed to hear the revelations concerning Brian Williams, but since I like him, and since he's never done anything to offend me personally, I don't gloat or jump with glee over the sad news. HOWEVER, I do rejoice over the TRUTH. Truth prevailed over a lie. (mike)

    1. I agree..I rejoice with the truth also, but as said I am troubled at the gloating over his misfortune.,..for me that's the spiritual lesson the story. Thanks for the comment.

  2. If this had happened to my wife,one of my kids, or anyone I liked or thought highly of, I wouldn't be capable of gloating over it because I have no predisposition to dislike them (hate, envy or jealousy etc). If it happens to an enemy or someone I dislike or am jealous of, then there is a foundational basis for my gloating/glee at their misfortune. I'm wondering then how much we might subconsciously wish for the downfall/demise of those we dislike...even mildly dislike. Such a pitiful Human predicament.