It's a Wonderful Life...Sometimes
This is the time of year we receive those carefully curated holiday letters from friends and family: the ones that give you updates on all the accomplishments and travels of the sender and his/her clan.
Although I’ve never penned one of these letters myself, I’ve fantasized about writing a letter recounting a year of fictional characters who were incarcerated, unemployed and, otherwise down and out. Just this week, I heard one such letter read on the radio. It could have been an exaggeration of a really bad year this family had, but it was no fiction. Along with financial problems, the family experienced the devastating illness and ultimate death of their patriarch.
The truth is our lives are full of ups and downs. Few people have storybook years, where day in and day out everyone is loving and happy, good fortunes abound and no one steps in doo-doo. And yet, the holiday letters we receive reflect a fairy tale life of the senders. And the rest of us compare our lives and, perhaps, feel as if we fell short.
Families who have experienced significant losses rarely write such holiday letters. Maybe no one wants to hear about sickness, death, job loss, foreclosures, and addiction in a holiday greeting. But maybe this would be a refreshing contrast to the typical saccharine letters we receive.
Schadenfreude is a German word that translates as experiencing joy from others’ suffering. This concept sounds as if it’s a form of mental illness but, in fact, Schadenfreude is a normal human emotion, albeit one we rarely express openly.
Feeling some pleasure when our rivals falter is one thing, but feeling good about our friends’ bad fortunes is quite another. We love our friends and families and wish them well while also deriving some satisfaction from knowing that, like us, they suffer loss and disappointment.
An honest holiday letter revealing the full catastrophe that is our lives would satisfy our proclivity for Schadenfreude. It would also open the door for an honest exchange of what is going on with people.
As I close out my year, I reflect back on my good fortune and the many gifts I have been given as well as the missed opportunities, frustrations, disappointments and loss. Life is not a bed of roses. My holiday wish for us all is that in our desire to be authentic and honor our feelings, we enable others to do the same. Here’s to our messy lives!