Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breed Love

Since I posted on Thursday about Freudenschade, the emptiness we're left with when another's cup runneth over, I've been thinking too about its opposite - that glimmer of glee we feel when something goes wrong for someone else.

And I've been thinking about Pecola Breedlove.

Pecola is the heroine (?) of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.  An eleven year old African American girl, Pecola attempts to escape the devastating reality of her life by fantasizing about having blue eyes, imagining that her ugliness (both existentially and physically) would be assuaged if only she looked different.  Pecola retreats further into her obsession after an act of unspeakable abuse and is left at the end of the book mad and alone, comforted only by an imaginary friend.

Morrison has said that she wanted The Bluest Eye to serve as a lesson on how to treat other human beings - and the book works as a cautionary tale of Schadenfreude gone too far.  In the novel, she provides Pecola with really only one sympathetic shoulder, the narrator Claudia.  The rest of the characters - first by their outright taunting of Pecola and later by their complete withdrawal from her - practice that most human art of Schadenfreude, about which Morrison writes:
Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved to on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while.  The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world - which is what she herself was.  All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed.  And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.  All of us - all who knew her - felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her.  We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness.  Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor.  Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent.  Her poverty kept us generous.  Even her waking dreams we used - to silence our own nightmares.  And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.  We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.
Surely there is a great gulf between our random acts of Schadenfreude and a community turning its back on an exploited child.  But the story of Pecola is instructive, I think, for the way in which Morrison captures the relationship between the antagonizer and the antagonized, the way in which she shows us how our own goodness, happiness, and purity feel that much more sanctified when we dump our badness, sadness, and guile on someone else.  Ultimately, Morrison reminds us that our tacit consent or even outright happiness at someone else's misfortune is not a victimless crime. 

Why do we invest so much emotional capital in comparing ourselves to others, and rejoice when we think the comparison is to our advantage?  What does this tendency say about us and our own insecurities?


  1. I don't know what it says about us, really, but it's pretty ugly to look at. It's why there's always one kid in the class who is the biggest of the losers...and everyone allows him/her to be tormented, because every other kid is just grateful not to be THAT kid.

    It's awful.

  2. Brilliant insight, and a wonderful example, Kristen.

    And there's a difference between being grateful not to be that person, and feeling superior to that person.

    I've seen this a great deal over the past years, as one whose situation makes others feel "grateful" (to have a job, marriage, support checks that actually show up) - and I'm fine with that, and understand it.

    However, there are also those who clearly exhibit signs of feeling "superior" when they look at my situation - as though I've done something "wrong" and they in comparison are therefore "right" or better, and so on.

    That I do not understand. That is the exact human behavior you speak of, and it reeks not only of insecurity, but of fear and of meanness.

    Comparisons are everywhere - we use them to assess businesses and potential mates, products and possible residences. But comparison of our own accomplishments/finances/square footage/possessions/life circumstances to those who - for whatever reason - are in a more challenging place - it's odd. I never did it when I was not in this challenging place, yet I am on the receiving end of it - noticeably - and usually among women, if they know much of my circumstances. (One of the reasons that in my public life I don't speak of them much, and frankly, I don't go out into the world much anymore, as a result.)

    I'll never forget when a friend (my own age) - a long-time friend - my age - said out of nowhere: "You are looking very good these days, but other than that, I know I've got it all over you."

    You could've blown me over with the proverbial feather. She has a marriage, a well-earning hubby, various insurance benefits, her kids are through college, and the very nice roof over her head isn't threatened. I have none of these things.

    This was not about being grateful for what she had (she isn't a happy woman); this was all about making herself feel better in some way, at my expense. I believe the remark slipped out "under the influence."

    I would give a great deal for a small bit of the security she has, but I wouldn't trade places with her for anything, because my kids are my kids, and I like who I am. Not my "circumstances," but who I am.

    Needless to say, we aren't close any longer.

  3. Ah, insecurities. It all comes down to insecurities. It constantly amazes me how much of what we do and what we say and WHO WE ARE comes down to those insecurities that evolve within us from day one.

    I like this statement: "our tacit consent or even outright happiness at someone else's misfortune is not a victimless crime."

    I think this is so true. But the interesting question (for me at least): Who is, ultimately, the victim? The person who suffers misfortune? Or those who derive happiness from that misfortune? (I hazard to say both.)

    As always, delicious food for thought. Thank you.

  4. Very thought provoking post! I seems we (the human race) have a strong tendency to use others around us to define ourselves and create the identity we desire. It takes a lot to step away from this and have the confidence to KNOW who we are without anyone's successes or failures playing into it.

  5. Hi Kristen, I don't have a specific comment, just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading your posts. I can imagine a compilation for a book about modern motherhhod and indeed personhood.

  6. I feel awful when I find myself thinking these thoughts. Comparing in that way. Thinking, however subconsciously, that I have made better choices. That I would make better choices if I were in that other person's shoes. And I feel doubly horrible because I know that my whole mission in my connections with others is to really very truly be ABLE to step in their shoes. So thinking those thoughts of comparison - the ones I'm not always aware of - are totally counter intuitive to my entire purpose of friendship/relationship. Why are we trained to do this? Are we constantly trying to feel good about ourselves and thus it is some awful protective mechanism?


    I do know that when I find myself doing it. I tell myself to shut the fuck up. It's working. :)

  7. I'm doing much better at NOT comparing since I found out I was someone else's "it could be worse." You know, like when you're whining about your own circumstances and then you say to yourself, "Well, it could be worse, I could be like so-and-so." I don't want to be considered someone's feel-better crutch. That's helped me when I look at others. I know the feeling of being on the other side.

    Comparing doesn't work. If you compare and think you're better, you're full pf pathetic pride. If you comapre and think you're worse, you're full of negative thoughts. Either way, you lose.

    Excellent, Kristen. So smart. Oh and I think Sarah (right above me) has found an excellent way of dealing with this:)


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