October 25, 2010

Why do we Feel Good when we Make Fun of Others?

Photo by Marc-Andre Lariviere

Nineteen year-old Tyler Clementi recently committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a friend secretly video taped him with a gay lover and put it out on the internet.

As they beat up an old man, two men and a woman videoed themselves enthusiastically laughing.

We may not always agree with others, but why do we need to cause them suffering? Why do we think it’s funny to put down, hurt, or even abuse another person?

Children giggle when another child falls down; when the opposing team wins we call them nasty names; when someone is bloodily beat up in a boxing match we shout hooray.

America’s Funniest Home Videos is full of images of people falling, crashing, making mistakes, and the resounding laughter that accompanies them. For instance, the ABC website highlights a bride’s veil that catches fire. Why do we find this so amusing?

In the political arena, constant put-downs are the norm. Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly said he wants President Obama to fail, as well as his administration and its agenda for economic and healthcare reform: “If Obama fails, America is saved.”

We attack others in order to feel good, or at least belittle someone as a way of making ourselves look better; finding fault or putting them down makes us feel superior. This tends to happen more when we are down ourselves, as misery loves company; feel bad yourself and you invariably find fault in others.

You would think as healthy human beings we would be concerned about another’s good fortune and happy to respect their preferences and choices. When we have a genuine regard for ourselves, we naturally extend that by wishing others success. Mudita is a Sanskrit term meaning “sympathetic joy,” or taking joy in other people’s happiness and well-being.

Now, in essence, mudita sounds easy and obvious—feeling joyful for another’s joy—but if someone else’s good fortune may be at the expense of our own (they got the job but we didn’t) can we still be happy for them? Or their success may highlight our own lack of good fortune, and challenge our self-worth and value. In other words, taking joy in someone you may have a negative feeling toward certainly does not happen overnight!

Mudita confronts us with those places that are wrapped up in our ego, such as jealousy, envy, judgment and greed. Jealousy isn’t going to get us anywhere other than into further pain and suffering, but how often do we wish that someone doesn’t succeed because their success highlights our own sense of failure?

We judge others in comparison to our own beliefs and preferences, but we can respect their choices, even if they are different to our own. Greed and self-centeredness take us out of the present and stop us from appreciating what we have right now.

Mudita asks that we let go of envy and comparison by seeing the other as ourselves, that there is no difference: we all experience the human condition, we breathe the same air, and we all want to be happy. Releasing judgment means stepping outside of our limited view and letting go of fixed and predictable patterns of thinking and behaving.

As mudita takes root, so we genuinely wish others be well. We actually want them to be happy! It makes us feel good. We want them to be free from suffering and to succeed at whatever they do. We recognize that our happiness and their happiness are no different and so we experience a deep joy in their well-being.

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