The Schadenfreude of Samson and the Mudita of Mustardseeds

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Last Sunday Pastor Ann Berney at Puyallup United Methodist Church asked the children what biblical story they liked best. Most of them chose stories like Noah’s Ark or Jonah and the Whale — stories that pull many children in. Sitting in the pew in my favorite spot by the stained glass, I asked myself what my favorite story was as a child and is now as an adult.

I’m still not sure about now. If you can believe it, I think it might be Job because that poor man struggles with his faith so much. I can relate.

But I know without a doubt that my favorite story as a child was not as cute as the Ark or Jonah with animals in pairs or the thrill of being swallowed by a fish.

No. My favorite story was Samson and Delilah. We had a big picture Bible when I was growing up, and I remember the artist’s pictures of Samson with his flowing dark hair, sitting next to the conniving Delilah who then cut his hair and robbed him of his power so his enemies could enslave him. I read that story repeatedly, and I think my mother might have wondered if letting me dwell on those pages was a bad idea. But it held me enthralled.

There was the idea of a man falling under the spell of a woman. There was the magic of long hair that made him strong. And most of all, there was the ending where he grew his hair back without anyone noticing and pushed the temple over to crush everyone.

Recently I was journaling about the German word ‘schadenfreude’ and had an ‘ah-ha’ moment. The Samson ending I once loved had a huge helping of schadenfreude. That expressive term holds two German words tucked together: schaden (damage) and freude (joy). The person feeling schadenfreude feels happy at the failure or damage that happened to another person because, somehow, the sufferer deserves what he or she gets.

The best example in my everyday life involves the car driver who cuts me off or passes me in a hurry then gets pulled over by a cop. I feel schadenfreude if I see this (or imagine it because I’ve never actually seen it happen). I remember learning this word in German class and marveling for the first (but not last) time that another language could have one word for something English needs to explain in a whole story about car driving or temple shoving over.

So Samson felt a moment of schadenfreude before the temple crushed him, too, I suppose. And my young Bible reader self sat fascinated.

I found a new expression recently, though, that is much more of an uplift.

‘Mudita’ is a word in Sanskrit that means joy at others joy or success. I came across it recently while I struggled with jealousy and was thrilled to learn a word that expressed the opposite of schadenfreude. In an article by Anne Cushman, I found that mudita starts with celebrating the joy in my own life and then extending that celebration out to others. It involves realizing that there is enough for all of us and looks something like the quote from the Dalai Lama: “If I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”

In Christianity, Jesus expresses this concept with his instruction to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ And if I look one more time at my favorite Biblical story, it would probably involve the mustard seed or the moving of mountains with less shadenfreude and more mudita. As much as I loved those pictures of Samson with the power hair I envied, I’ve gotten to a point where I need more joy and ‘billions more chances to be happy’ sounds like a good deal to me.

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