Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Flooding and Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude. When my father used it for the first time I questioned him about the meaning, because it is German in origin and while he spoke German I do not. He explained to me that there is no equivalent word in the English lexicon, which is a shame since it is such an expressive phrase. You see schadenfreude is the word used to describe the act of taking joy in the misery of others. And it seems recently some were expressing schadenfreude when my community experienced a flood – and they decided it was some sort of natural or divine retribution for our industrial activities.

It is the Westborough Baptist Church approach to natural disasters – blame those who are already suffering, and find a way to make them the authors of their own fate. Ignore any other factors, and find a way to either blatantly or covertly imply that it is, in the end, their own fault. And I resoundingly reject this, because no matter what anyone thinks of our industry the suggestion that we, as people, deserve to suffer because of it is deeply offensive.
We are talking about homes, here, and the lives of people. We are talking about families being evacuated, and we are talking about flooding that has damaged not just buildings but the fabric of our community. We are talking about the potential for health risks from water that now requires boiling (in some areas of my community, those most affected by the flooding). We are not talking about industry – we are discussing community. MY community.

It made me think of a story I was told some time ago. A local man was driving down highway 63, just outside city limits, when he spotted a car with the hood up, the international signal for car trouble. He stopped and found two young women who were in dire straights, their car having run out of gas, and strangers to our community. He offered assistance, which they gratefully accepted. That’s when they told him they were budding and enthusiastic environmentalists, and their goal was to shut down the oil sands industry.
He winked at me at this point of his tale, because you see he happens to work in the very industry these young women hoped to shut down. I asked him what he did next, thinking surely he would have driven away and left them to fend for themselves. But no. That’s not what he did.

He got on his cellphone, and called two friends. One he asked to bring some gas, and the other he asked to stop at Tim Horton’s for coffee and donuts, as the young women seemed cold and hungry. He spoke to them while they waited, and they shared some stories, him never telling them where he worked or how he supports his family. He told me he never mentioned the irony in them running out of gas on the way to shut down the oil sands, and that he never mentioned the irony of them being in a car at all.
His friends arrived, and they gassed up the car and provided the young women with food and hot coffee, and bid them goodbye. And I think this story is remarkable for one reason - he put aside his reaction to what their intent was, and instead focused on their humanity, and their immediate dilemma. He did not engage in schadenfreude.

It’s easy to practice schadenfreude, but I will say this bluntly: if you take joy in the misery of others there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Think what you like about our industry and our jobs – but recognize that bad things happen simply because they happen, not because they are some form of retribution. If you wish condemn our industry, but remember that there are people working in that industry and living in this community, and they do not deserve to suffer floods, fires, or other fates because of their employment. This is about people, not industry, and if you dare suggest to me that we “deserve” to be flooded because of our role in greenhouse gas emissions or any other such issue I will very likely slot you in with the members of the Westborough Baptist Church (and as a side benefit you may see the top of my head blow off as I dissolve into a seething ball of rage at your audacity).
There is a reason I explained schadenfreude at the beginning of this post. There is another term, much easier to comprehend and much easier to translate into any language. The word is “compassion”, and those who indulge in schadenfreude should perhaps dig deep in their own hearts and find it. One day they may find they could use some compassion too, like two young women stranded on a roadside, rescued by kind strangers who put aside the desire for schadenfreude in favour of compassion.

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