Is calling attention to peoples’ tragic (often avoidable) mistakes “celebrating another’s misfortune?”

In the wake of the Covid pandemic, it’s become obvious there’s great division, especially in American society, between people who have embraced the collective wisdom of experts in the medical field, and those who cling to conspiracy theories and arguments that this worldwide pandemic is a hoax, overblown, or a vehicle for private interests to “take away people’s freedoms.”

There are many ways people are trying to deal with this conflict. There are many people who are frustrated over what they see as an incredible lack of empathy exhibited by so-called “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-maskers” who refuse to cooperate with guidelines designed to control a public health crisis.

As time and natural selection confidently marches on, there’s been an ever-increasing pattern emerging: Those who dismiss the pandemic and its treatment are consistently falling prey to the repercussions. People who refuse approved treatments in favor of back-alley use of veterinary supplies, and other treatments not approved, are finding their beliefs aren’t keeping them safer, and freedom doesn’t seem to matter when a person is slowly suffocating due to oxygen deprivation. Yet many of these, people, even as they suffer at their own hands, are intent to continue to spread ignorance and misinformation.

This cognitive dissonance would be more excusable if these peoples’ irresponsibility only affected themselves, but it hurts everybody around them. It’s pushing the world’s healthcare system to the edge of its abilities, and healthcare workers to the edge of their sanity.

One isolated social media community found a way to reconcile with the grief by turning these anti-vaxxer’s stories into cautionary tales, provoking controversy as well as providing a place for people to vent and attempt to reconcile their frustrations with their fellow humans. One such place is Reddit’s “Herman Cain ‘Freedom’ Award” subreddit, named after a prominent Republican political leader, who notoriously mocked Covid and precautionary measures and passed away from the disease. Subsequent outspoked anti-vax pundits and everyday people spreading unscientific memes on social media have been made examples of, even as they struggled to live and continued to refuse to admit they were wrong. Many are leaving behind families, children, even the unborn, all the while their remaining relatives establish online money pandering efforts to cover the huge healthcare costs racked up by the, “overblown flu hoax.”

It turns out, many burned out healthcare workers in the industry have congregated in this social media space as a way to help deal with all the unnecessary death and suffering they’re subject to on a daily basis. The added context, while tragic, helps many understand and explain the nature of suffering a little better.

Mainstream media has discovered places like this and sought to vilify those calling attention to the demise of anti-vaxxers as some kind of psychopathic circle jerk. But the reality is, it’s the opposite. Sometimes, empathetic people need an outlet to vent and release their frustrations in dealing with those who have so little empathy.

Here’s a response from user “birdcantweet” on Reddit when confronted over whether or not singling out anti-vaxxers that end up dying is considered “Schadenfreude”. This short essay is a great example of the intricacies and complexities of empathy (and lack thereof).

“..please stop. That is not the word. Schadenfreude is joy at another’s misfortune, and there is nothing unfortunate or undeserved about what is happening to our honorees.

The ancient Greeks called it tisis. The Romans called it Nemesis and personified her as a winged goddess. Popular culture calls it karma. All have the same basic meaning: retribution. Not retribution from human hands for the violation of human laws; retribution from the outraged universe itself, a bitchslap from Mother Nature to those who tweaked her nose one too many times.

At this point, the antivaxxers have self selected into a particular tribe: generally white, lower-to-middle class, ‘evangelical’ or charismatic Christian, politically conservative, and often explicitly pro-Trump. They claim the virtues of courage, wisdom, faith, and prudence; they have instead the vices of apathy, ignorance, recklessness, and a lack of empathy. And this last is the fatal flaw, because it renders them unable to see as human anyone who is not just like them. And their social media posts, both in their original content and the memes they share, have no purpose except to cement their standing in the tribe. The memes are, to put it gently, repetitive. But to a tribal mindset they are essential; posting the same badly-captioned picture of Dr. Fauci does as much to prove membership as staying exactly in step in the fireside dance.

The maxims of the tribe are simple:

  1. We will not get COVID.
  2. We don’t care if you get COVID.
  3. There is nothing you can do to make us care.

And on they go, happily enjoying their freedom while the rest of us ‘live in fear.’ And those of us not of their tribe — you know, those of us who have empathy, who have understanding, who can find solidarity even with the members of the human race who are not our color or gender or religion because we’re all f%^$^g human — grind our teeth. Because while they swagger along like the bully’s little sidekick, COVID continues to ruin lives, and they don’t care.

Then they hear the brush of feathers at the window.

In some cases, human suffering produces empathy. We celebrate that.

In some cases, fear of suffering — appropriate, reasonable fear — shakes people out of their complacency and makes them take steps to protect themselves. We celebrate that too.

But in other cases, ignorance and apathy tip the scales too far, the laws of nature snap back, and the consequences come due. We do not celebrate that. But we do admit to finding it satisfying, because it justifies our own course of action. We chose fear, yes — but it was a wise fear that led to health and life. We did not choose faith — at least, not faith without works. We celebrated medical science, and those of us of a religious bent (myself included) thanked God for giving humans the minds and tools to produce a vaccine just when we needed it most. And we did care — and continue to care — about those who prove their tribal identity by slandering everyone else. We care about the broken families and burnt-out caregivers left in their wake. We don’t celebrate their passing, though we don’t mourn them. And we don’t call them unfortunate. They have received what they were seeking all along.

Antivaxxers act as they do because they feel proof against the consequences. They are wrong. Until ignorance becomes more painful than knowledge, their ignorance will continue. That is where we come in.

What is it that makes anti-vaxxers so immune to evidence, logic and reason? Is it the information bubble they have been subjected to? Mental illness? Paranoia? Ideological indoctrination?

There are many potential correlations between this antisocial mindset and various external sources, from religious and political groups to news and media sources, to cultural peer pressure.

But at the end of the day, the primary function that allows a person to ignore the suffering of others is lack of empathy. Proving once again, especially in cases like this, that empathy can be a great force for healing and comfort, and lack thereof, a tremendous force for destruction. Humans continue to wrestle with how best to handle the toxic among us. We’ll continue to investigate and report on this.

Is The Pursuit Of Happiness Making Us Miserable?

One of our favorite writers and observers of the human condition was John Perry Barlow. Here is his missive, “The Pursuit of Emptiness” originally published in Forbes:

The Pursuit of Emptiness: Why Americans Have Never Been A Happy Bunch

Forbes ASAP, 12.03.01

Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.
-Chuang-tzu (369-286 B.C.)

Extolling the pursuit of happiness was a toxic stupidity entirely unworthy of my greatest American hero, Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the pursuit is a poison that sickens our culture. I wish he’d never said it.

It produces a monstrous, insatiable hunger inside our national psyche that encourages us to ravenously devour the resources of this small planet, crushing liberties, snuffing lives, feeling ourselves ordained by God and Jefferson to do whatever is necessary to make us happy.

During the year 2000, while feeding at the greatest economic pig trough the world has ever slopped forth, Americans ate $10.2 billion worth of Prozac and other antidepressants (up 19.5% from the previous year). Better living through chemistry? I don’t think so. I have never heard any of my friends and acquaintances who have become citizens of the Prozac Nation claim that these drugs bring them any closer to actual happiness. Rather, they murmur with listless gratitude that antidepressants have pulled them back from the Abyss. They are not pursuing happiness; they are fleeing suicide.

Not until I turned 30 did it become apparent that my wariness of the pursuit of happiness might be a subtle form of treason. Like many of my generation, I hadn’t expected to live to such an age. I really didn’t trust anyone over 30, and remain reluctant to do so even now. But since I was about to become an adult, I figured I ought to take a stab at graceful adulthood.

So I spent the night before my 30th birthday composing a list called “Principles of Adult Behavior.” Most of my self-directed advice consisted of such platitudes as Polonius liked to lay on Hamlet–stuff like “Expand your sense of the possible” and “Tolerate ambiguity.”

But there was a patch in the middle of this earnest document that nearly every American who read it bottomed out on. And that was No. 15, which stated: “Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.”

Despite the safely Puritan kicker, this homily pissed off the broadest range of folks you can imagine. Whether hippie, cowboy, redneck, or debutante, practically everyone who read it thought there was something threateningly wrong with it. It was downright un-American. Why?

Because nearly everyone in this country feels the weird, invisible pressure to pursue happiness; they feel that secret shame of not trying hard enough to attain it. To have someone tell them they should just stop trying felt like a threat to an oath they’d taken. In other words, Jefferson’s wistful aspiration has gradually transmuted into first an entitlement and eventually an obligation, even as its actual practice has become increasingly rare. Listen carefully for the sound of spontaneous laughter in America’s public places. Observe random American faces for the sight of a smile. You will be alarmed, I think, at how infrequently we are illuminated by such natural human light. And yet, behind these grim masks, there continues to reside the guilty belief that happiness is ordained by Jefferson (and possibly God) to be our duty.

Ask an American how he’s doing, even in these times of pandemic chaos and fear, and he will instinctively reply, “Fine.”

Yeah, right.

Let me be clear. I like happiness. Hell, I think I am happy most of the time. And why, when I’m happy, am I happy? Never because I pursued happiness but rather because I let it pursue me. To me, the more you ignore happiness, the more it will come looking. Swami Satchidananda of India put it better: “If you run after things, nothing will come to you. Let things run after you. The sea never sends an invitation to the rivers. That’s why they run to the sea. The sea is content. It doesn’t want anything. That’s the secret in life.”

In Africa, the Zulu have a word, ubunto, which is often translated to mean community, but I’ve heard a more accurate definition: “I am because we are; we are because I am.” In other words, happiness is not a solitary endeavor; it’s a joint enterprise, something that can only be created by the whole. I am happy because we are happy. Contentment arises from a sense of family, community, and connectedness.

Such virtues are in dwindling supply in America. Close to half of first marriages end in divorce. The war between children and parents has never been uglier. We ridiculously imagine that America Online and the local mall are communities. And to the extent that we are connected at all, it is largely by mass media like television, which, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, “allows thousands of people to laugh at the same joke and still remain alone.”

Do we Americans lack this sense of connectedness because of our affluence? Does wealth induce loneliness? I don’t think so. But to address the problem, we first have to admit that it exists. This will not be easy. Many of us are convinced that our sorrows are a sign of personal deficiency. Thinking that we are alone in our politically incorrect despair only drives us deeper into personal isolation.

But more to the point, we need to rethink some of the basic assumptions of the industrial economy. Chief among these is the idea that there is a natural division between our lives and our livelihoods. The first thing we learn in school is that it’s supposed to suck. Learning is work, and we fully expect that the work we do in later life will make us equally miserable. We render unto Caesar for eight dreary hours every day, during which we expect not to be ourselves but rather interchangeable machine parts in some great industrial engine.

This doesn’t have to be the case. I was a cattle rancher for 17 years, during which there was no discernable division between my life and my work. It was cold, arduous, and involved constant contact with actual bullshit, but I loved it. Following my realization that ranching had become a lifestyle that only the already wealthy could afford, I turned to thinking for a living. This is also hard, and there is plenty of bullshit involved, but I can only do it as myself. Yet most organizations still require their “knowledge workers” to be as self-alienated as lathe operators. There was a glimmer of hope in the dot-com startups, but these have either failed or become big enough to assume the isolating social practices of their industrial predecessors.

Better still, there has never in history been such an abundance of young people who have already experienced the futility of wealth. They spent a couple of years pursuing IPOs that would “release” them to a lifetime of starlet-chasing on the Riviera. Now many of them are more dedicated to making a difference than to making a dollar.

Which brings me to another solace still available to us. Consider the joys of service. As a few leaders, ranging from Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama, demonstrate, we can become happy through the exercise of compassion. But following the training we receive in schools and workplaces, we have come to regard service as a self-suppressing obligation rather than a self-fulfilling responsibility. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Perhaps, in the wake of the September 11 massacre, this is changing. Now, hundreds of thousands have experienced the obscure delight of donating blood. Millions more are finding, in the presence of such loss and terror, what really matters. Love can thrive in the presence of fear. As a society, we are well positioned to both love and accept love.

All this doesn’t mean that happiness can only be found through connectedness. You can find happiness when you are alone. Sometimes I think of something Kafka–that noted happiness-hound–wrote:

 It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.

Kafka is not talking about the pursuit of happiness. He’s not even talking, as one might easily and incorrectly conclude, about lying in wait for happiness. He’s talking about making yourself genuinely available to it. Opening yourself to the little things: the sunrises, the lilac-scented breezes, the hilarious bartender jokes, the inside straights, the large purring cats, the click of stiletto heels, the very granular texture of unsolicited joy.

Worry. Be happy. But remember that happiness is a gift you owe yourself. It is not an obligation you owe to Jefferson, the United States, or God Itself.

John Perry Barlow is a retired Wyoming cattle rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist, and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His last essay for Forbes ASAP was “Surfing the Fence Line” in Big Issue II: @ Work.


Are YOU the toxic person in your workplace?

Here’s an interesting article that’s going viral, about toxic people in the workplace and how to identify them: 3 Signs You’re the Toxic Person in Your Workplace (and What to Do About It)

The article makes three salient points:

1. You Make Everything About You
2. You Say and Do Passive-Aggressive Things
3. You’re Jealous of the Success of Others

As we know from our analysis of the dynamics of empathy, all of these characteristics are the result of a lack of empathy. The inability to focus on how other people feel, or how your behavior affects them, is what causes the appears of selfishness, passive aggressiveness and jealousy.

While the article directs people to address each of these misgivings in separate ways, they all stem from a common cause, and understanding this core element is the real key to improving oneself. You have to stop, and think about how your actions affect others. Would you want someone behaving this way towards you? If not, be wary of doing it yourself.