I have been reading about Middle-Eastern troubles. There is much I wanted to say about them, but I came to the conclusion that people have been contemplating Middle-Eastern troubles for thousands of years and while my analysis may hint at some relevance to the situation there, I perhaps think more highly of myself than I ought. No one yet has come up with a consensus that will work for solving problems in the region; I seriously doubt I will, either. The Middle-East has too much cultural, mutually exclusive animosity to achieve anything like a workable plan for peaceful coexistence. There are too many of those who want to remove the heads of those whose religious affiliation is dissimilar to their own. I cannot contribute to anything but the background noise on that. Any seemingly peaceful coexistence in the past has come at the point of a sword, which seems somewhat oxymoronic.
While I have views about Islam, of what possible relevance could my views from rural Mississippi have on Islam in the Middle-East when it’s apparent that the views on Islam even between Muslims who live in holy lands are the subject of much contention? If the Shiites and the Sunnis are unable to work out their differences in a peaceful manner, or even peacefully coexist, then how can what I think help that situation?
Religious differences and disputes are as old as religion and the fractiousness of mankind. Men are generally tolerant of people like themselves and a bit less so of those who do not belong to their own tribe, don’t share their own faith, don’t speak their own language, or don’t have their own skin color. This is not new. This is not news.
I have a native-born Mississippian friend who looks like me and talks like me, whom I admire and respect with the utmost sincerity, who recently revealed to me that he is a Muslim. Having married a woman from Indonesia thirty years ago, and having loved her far more than his own admitted ambivalent agnosticism, he had converted prior to their marriage. I already knew that he was Muslim. He asked why had I not said so.
“I thought I’d wait on mentioning it until you decided to tell me,” I said.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“You had said your wife was from Indonesia. You don’t eat pork. You don’t drink. You are always mysteriously absent on Friday afternoons. You always enjoy going to eat lunch with me but are never available to eat lunch on Fridays or during the month of Ramadan, always being somewhat cryptic about your reasons. Eventually, I just put two and two together,” I said. “It did not seem important to me.”
He then seemed, for some unapparent reason, to apparently mistake my previously silent awareness of his faith as some reflection of ambivalence and weakness in my own. He began to tell me all the reasons why he didn’t eat filthy pork and why I should not eat the filthy animal either. He told me that Jesus was respected as a prophet in Islam. He said that the Jews do not respect Jesus as a prophet, and that Christians should have a better opinion of Islam because of that. He then told me why the Koran was so much purer than my own, tampered with, untrustworthy bible. He told me about the life, words, and deeds of Jesus, versus the writing of the Apostle Paul and how they were all a corruption of true Christianity, added later by avaricious men. I did not say a word as he continued almost out of breath, seeming to need to get this all out at once during this “troubled water” period that had been presented to him. None of what he said was alarming to me. I had heard it all before. I am not shaken, much less moved, by all the usual arguments.
He then told me that Jesus did not die on the cross, nor was he resurrected, nor was he the Son of God, and certainly not God himself.
“It is unfortunate that so many Christians believe this,” he said, “and blasphemously deny the oneness of the true god, Allah.”
“I do believe every word of what you just said about Jesus. I believe he died on the cross, was resurrected, and is God himself manifest in the flesh,” I said to his slight recoil. “I cannot be moved from that. If that makes me a blasphemer, then it is with this blasphemous faith that I will go to my grave. This is the one area where we must agree that we cannot agree. Everything else you said is peripheral, but the nature of Jesus is not…it is core to the belief of Christians. It is certainly core to my belief as a Christian. I am unable to budge on that one.”
“That’s one of the problems with Christianity,” he replied. “There is so much disagreement among Christians about their doctrines and beliefs.”
I thought about this for a moment, then asked, “So, if you don’t mind me asking, are you Sunni or Shia?”
“Sufi!” he answered with a smile.
“Ahhh! Sufi,” I said. “I always liked this mystical, gnostic version of Islam and the wisdom of Sufi poets and philosophers.”
“Yes, my wife and I are Sufi,” he smiled again, apparently pleased that I was familiar with Sufism.
“And how successful would you be presenting your explanations and defense of Sufism to a Wahabi Sunni cleric, or perhaps an Iranian Shiite Imam, or standing at the Kaaba and declaring to all those gathered there the superiority of Sufism over all the other competing branches of Islam?”
“They wouldn’t like it at all,” he said, quieter now..
I thought not. In some places, they’d execute him over his own personal blasphemy. I let the point sink in. There was no need to say any more about it, though he had something more to say.
“You seem to know more about Islam than most folks. You are interested in things and find out about them, which is one of the reasons I like you. Most folks in Mississippi are completely ignorant about Islam, especially most Christians.”
“Some Christians are ignorant of their own faith,” I replied, “Just like some Muslims, never stopping to consider that there are things about God and His nature that no man can understand, going through life filled with a religious dogma that omits everything that is not within the realm of their own understanding, and ignoring the essence of the very real people who have very real lives they are living on this earth, all of them with a limited understanding. As a Sufi, you must believe that there are things we cannot know about God.”
“That is why I told you about me being a Muslim. I knew you’d react this way. I suppose I wanted to test our friendship to see if it could pass muster. You know your own religion. You know more about Islam than any non-Muslim I ever met here, yet you are still persuaded of your faith, and we can still be friends.”
“We were already friends. I am persuaded. And I am not asking you to be unpersuaded of your faith. We owe respect to each other, and at a very minimum, the good manners and politeness that our parents instilled in all of us Mississippi boys as we were growing up. Religion has interfered with good manners more than is good for religion, or mankind. God will ultimately sort the goats from the sheep. He never needed men to do it on His behalf,” I said, still persuaded.
We shook hands, knowing that nothing had changed in the nature of our friendship. If it had, I’d have been disappointed in myself. His admission had only been a confirmation of what I already knew. Why should confirmation of what is already known be any cause for someone to change their views? He would have been a very poor Muslim if he believed in the deity of Jesus. I would have been a very poor Christian had I not. That is not to say that there are those who identify as Christians who do not believe in Jesus’ deity. I am aware of them. My question is, “Why bother?” If one does not believe in the deity of Jesus, but a weighed-in-the-balance test of acceptability to an unnamed deity in the heavens, then a general deist-moralism will serve just as well. And for certain, I’d rather have a benign deism-moralism prevalent over the world than any uber-religious zealot, no matter which religion is being espoused. Men have made terrible mistakes in the names of their religion. They will in all likelihood continue to do so. That they do so is not a commentary on God, but a commentary on the nature of men.
The German word schadenfreude has become an omnipresent news meme these days. We borrowed it from German because, remarkably, English has no equivalent word for this all-to-common human frailty: the pleasure one derives at the misfortunes of others. We recoil in animosity (or horror) when bad things happen to people who belong to our tribe, or with whom we have some human connection, yet it is all to easy to express a bit of self-satisfied schadenfreude when misfortunes (or horrors) happen to others not so identifiable with ourselves.
I have felt horror at the execution and decapitations of Christians at the hands of ISIS. It is easy for me to believe that there is more than a bit of secret schadenfreude among Muslims who are these people’s neighbors, thinking perhaps, that they had it coming to them. It is also easy to suspect that there are Muslims who themselves recoiled in horror at these atrocious deeds, but are too intimidated to say anything about it. The movie THE OX-BOW INCIDENT comes to mind. It can cost a person to speak out…it can cost them their very lives.
Schadenfreude is far worse than fear when it comes to not standing up against evil. Fear we understand. Schadenfreude, we also understand, but we keep our secret joy harbored in our hearts, only revealing it to those we suspect enjoy it, too.
“There has been a terrible scandal over at the Baptist church, resulting in a big split,” Presbyterian Elder Willie Carl Randolph whispered to Methodist Lay-Leader Rufus Dodd Dean, right before the gavel banged down at the Froward County Rotary Club luncheon.
“Say it ain’t so!” said Rufus Dodd, all ears to hear the latest scuttlebutt.
“Haven’t you heard?” asked Willie Carl, excited to find someone to whom he could tell the whole, enhanced story.
“No,” Rufus Dodd lied, hoping to hear something new that he had not yet been extrapolated from previous extrapolations, spurious events, imagined motives, and behind-the-scenes activities and speculations that were well on their way to becoming established facts held in common by the non-Baptist community in Froward County. In this manner, he could tell as Willie Carl’s his own added embellishments. Willie Carl would later hear them, never suspecting that he was being misquoted as the original embellisher, and would then believe and add to what he had heard that someone else had said that he had said, swearing it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him god. It was a vicious cycle, accelerating exponentially to a tangential intersection with reality, which is no intersection at all. While the news would have some basis in the truth, it would be far removed from it, fairly not resembling it in the slightest. No one would believe this, though, choosing to believe the most scurrilous, untoward things, which was by far the easiest to believe, as men can so readily and willingly believe of others what they harbor in their own hearts.
Willie Carl got down to the details of the scandal, which I will not reveal here, lest I also become a prevaricator, adding my own embellishments to the enhancements previously mentioned. I will admit that the scandal was not sexual in nature, which led many to lose interest in it in just a couple of days.
It is the itching ears to hear misfortunes that have occurred to people with whom we think we are in competition that concerns me. It is the schadenfreude we experience when the church down the road is dealing with scandal, when the person who got the job we were not selected for gets fired, when the government agency who declined to support us gets called on the carpet for waste, fraud, and corruption…or perhaps when the news anchor from a network we don’t like gets caught up in embellishments of his own. This is a poor trait that exists in our common, shared humanity.
I’ll admit of a bit of schadenfreude from time to time, but like everyone else, I either keep it silent or I’ll mask it in a protective cocoon of objectivism, pretending to the high road while my heart is mired in the deep, muddy ruts left by so many travelers mired there before me. Maybe Abel had a bit of schadenfreude at brother Cain’s misfortune over God’s rejection of his offering. Maybe it is this schadenfreude that caused Cain to harbor murderous thoughts towards his brother. Genesis tells us that God warned Cain about his thoughts leading up to his actions. I can’t help but wonder what Abel’s thoughts might have been. What might God have said to Abel? Was it merely sibling rivalry gone bad? Was schadenfreude involved? The sense of schadenfreude adds insult to injury.
I have heard Christians use the word “karma” which has it religious roots in an ancient Hinduism. Many Christians believe in karma, and many have been rebuked by other Christians for merely using this excellent word which succinctly describes the doctrine of “You shall reap what you have sown.” Karma sums this up, yet karma does not satisfy. When we say it was his karma, we are saying perhaps we think that one deserved whatever has happened to them. We seldom use this in connotation with good fortune, thus its use hints at schadenfreude, since by extension, we have removed ourselves from the vicinity of someone else’s karma, having never seen ourselves there. It is a delusion we harbor. We have all been there. There is no evil perpetrated by men the seeds of which do not reside in the hearts of all men. A little schadenfreude can warm, water, and fertilize the ground in which those seeds rest. Schadenfreude leads to enthusiasm. Enthusiasm leads to zealotry. Zealotry leads to fear. Fear leads to paranoia. Paranoia leads to loathing, hatred, and persecution. All that’s left after those things is death.
I am, as usual, more than a bit amused as how to I got to where I am from my starting place. I started out to write one thing, and was inspired to write about something completely different. It is in the nature of writing.
Now, on to this fabulous conclusion.
There was a box with a couple of left-over pieces of Popeye’s Fried Chicken in the refrigerator. I had earlier spied the box and began to think of the chicken, declining, for the moment, the chicken I knew had been inside. My eyes, in triumph over my belly, had led me to return to the refrigerator in a midnight search of a chicken wing. Alas, someone else had eaten the chicken, leaving one dried-out cold biscuit in the box, since putting the box back in the refrigerator was easier than carefully placing it on top of the overflowing garbage can in the kitchen, because prudence would have required that the overflowing bag be tied, taken outside to the large trash container, and a new bag inserted in the kitchen garbage can. The default here is to leave empty food containers in the refrigerator.
I looked with a lonesome forlorn-ness at the inedible biscuit. I placed it on the counter and emptied the trash. Upon my return, I picked up the biscuit, opened the door, and walked out on the North facing front porch, braving the biting North wind, and threw the biscuit as far down the hill as I could. I returned inside and sat down so I could look out the window. I knew what was coming next.
That frigid North wind carried the scent of the biscuit to whatever place Ruby, Relay, Baba-Lu and Elsa Belle, our four dogs, had curled up. I had not seen them all morning, but I knew that I would soon be seeing them as the scent of the biscuit was carried to their noses. A dog’s sense of smell is remarkable. Within two minutes, all four dogs were on the front porch, noses into the wind, sniffing the air, trying to determine the location of the biscuit. I watched them with great interest. It was Relay who seemed to first pinpoint the biscuit’s location.
Normally, at feeding time, none of the dogs would’ve given that old biscuit a second thought. In this case, though, the biscuit was the reason for some real dog-eat-dog competition. Not a single one of the dogs wanted the others to get to the biscuit first. Having pin-pointed it first, Relay, the docile Australian Shepherd mix, was off a full step sooner than the others, who all raced to the biscuit that full step behind her. Of course, she was the first to arrive, snagging the biscuit in her teeth as she ran by, not stopping until she got to the other side of the pond so she could eat her biscuit unmolested by the other dogs. Ruby, the chow mix, and Baba-Lu, the pit bull, could have and would have taken it from her. Else Belle, the pointer-puppy would just worry her about it, being intimidated by Relay’s snarls that would have no effect on the other dogs who ranked higher in the four-dog pack.
The other dogs had stopped at the place where the biscuit once rested, sniffed the ground, and turned to watch the backside of the retreating Relay, choosing to leave her be, except for Elsa Belle, who, being a mere puppy, was not yet wise to the ways of the dog world. Ruby and Baba-Lu began to pace the yard back and forth in a grid, noses to the ground, in search of some trace of more biscuit, knowing that this was their only hope for Relay would have the biscuit eaten before they could get there since they had stopped to smell its former resting place. As it was, Relay had the biscuit all to herself. Elsa Belle got none in spite of all her puppy pleadings. Ruby and Baba-Lu only got their appetite stimulated. In a few minutes, they all returned together as a group, with no more thoughts of the biscuit. There were no jealousies, no bitternesses, no belligerences, no animosities, and no hostilities. In fact, I suspect there is no more memory of the biscuit, other than its lingering scent in the air.
I can’t help but wonder, though, had Baba-Lu taken the biscuit from Relay, would Ruby have contemplated some hint of schadenfreude? Would Relay have nurtured some long grudge of having being wronged?
They are not saying, those dogs of mine. They have returned to their warm spots in this far-too-cold frigidity that is this February Mississippi, sleeping, perhaps dreaming of the triumph of the booty of cold biscuits won in open battle, the reward for the valiant, the vigilant, the wise, each of them a victor, at least until feeding time, when they will all sup separately until they have emptied their own bowls and then insist on inspecting the bowls of the others, as if there would be something left in them. Ever the optimists, they always think the others will leave something behind.
The only thing left is a memory.
I suspect there is not a hint of schadenfreude.
I can’t be sure, though I have done the dogs no favor in my anthropomorphic characterizations of them.
They don’t seem to mind.
©2015 Mississippi Chris Sharp