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I recently admitted to a friend that I used to suffer from schadenfreude, which is a German term describing deriving pleasure from another person’s failure.
To be fair, I tend to speak a bit hyperbolically, and I often have to remind myself something that a high school English teacher once told me: if you have to exaggerate to make a point, then your point is inherently weak.
But I am not sure if there is a term to describe that condition from which I suffered, but if there is, the Germans probably would have coined it. A more accurate description of my affliction was difficulty celebrating the joys and successes of others. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted them to fail or suffer, I just wanted their level of happiness to always be parallel to mine.
So my apologies in advance to any friend whose wedding I have attended that may be reading this, but I had a really tough time celebrating your joy. I undoubtedly indulged at your open bars to try to numb this feeling, faked a smile through the vows, and ended the night fighting with my date, who was also my long-term partner.
Sure, I danced and ate and laughed, but your wedding was tough for me. And being the unskillful person that I was then, I did not take any time to examine why that was or what I could do to change it. I just got back on the hamster wheel wedding after wedding, never adjusting my booze intake, choice in date, or any other variable. I would later learn that this cyclical behavior was called samsara.
My ex and I attended many weddings together in our seven years of togetherness; there were at least 14 that I can count off the top of my head and they took place all over the country: California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and so on.
I used to bitterly say that I spent a lot of money on other people’s happiness, and I wondered when I would get that money returned. The first summer that I had when the wedding calendar was sparse, I took the money that I would have spent on flights and hotels and gifts and dresses and spent it on a yoga retreat to Israel.
I took the money and took the first step on my path, or at least I opened my eyes to the path that I was blundering around on for many years, ultimately falling off the edges and trudging through the high grass and thicket and thorn, when a clear way was about a few steps nearby.
But it took me the overdose of my brother’s partner, the almost overdose of my brother, quitting my job, and moving 3,000 miles away from my own partner from Los Angeles to Tampa, Florida, to really start living my dharma.
After the move and going almost two and a half years wedding free (the last one coincidentally being my aunt’s in Florida to which I bitterly remarked that I couldn’t believe I had to go to Florida, of all places, for a wedding), I found myself back in Los Angeles for the wedding of one of my most cherished old employees. This woman was the kind of employee who would have probably been my best friend if I had not have been her boss, and the joke was always that we would be friends in “real life.”
Not only was this to be my first dateless wedding in almost eight years, but I had set the intention to, gulp, not consume any alcohol. I had some dry spells for a few months as I was investigating my relationship with alcohol and attempting to figure out if it no longer served me. A dateless wedding would definitely yield some curious results.
As a scientist by profession, I know that the best way to experiment is by controlling and isolating variables so by manipulating two at once, it’s nearly impossible to really come to any solid conclusions. But as a seeker on the path attempting to become more skillful and wise and discerning as quickly as possible, I didn’t really care. So on a beautiful June night in the backyard of a stunning home in Los Angeles, California, while I watched my quirky, lovable, and gorgeous now “real life” friend marry her husband, I came to some conclusions that are about as solid as they get.
While I didn’t have one person in the room who was designated as my date, I had everyone in that backyard with whom I could laugh and eat and dance and celebrate. I was free to connect more deeply with another one of my former employees/would-have-been-friends than I would have had I had a date.
Also, the date by my side for all of those 14-plus weddings had served as my whipping boy all that time. Instead of turning inward and exploring why I could not be happy for others, I would shoot drunk daggers at him all handsome and tall and bearded for not making me happy like the man who was standing at the altar could make the bride happy.
Without the presence of my whipping boy for that time between California and Florida, I was forced to look inward. And in that moment, I was reaping the rewards from all of the work I had done to really, truly love myself, to drop the stories, and find freedom (moksha!). So most importantly, I felt completely and utterly full without someone on my arm.
Could I have come to the above conclusion after having two or three wine spritzers (okay, let’s be honest, I would have probably had seven)? Would I have felt the same sense of peace and calm the next day, which happened to be my first Father’s Day without my dad? I’ll never know. But I do know that I was filled with such gratitude when I texted the bride the next day thanking her for giving me the biggest gift ever—being at a wedding and feeling truly happy for someone’s love.
And instead of feeling dread about the next wedding invite that will probably be in my mailbox in the next couple of weeks, I actually feel a sense of eagerness and hope.
Update: The writer is now completely sober, a few years older, still single, and has attended even more weddings. And while she continues to really love herself, drop the stories, and be free, of most importance, she has learned a new word and embodied it. That word is freudenfreude, joy at another’s joy.