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18 Aug

With maturity comes empathy, and rightly so, argues Jeff Corbett

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ONE of the amusements of caravan parks is watching the caravanners who’ve just arrived as they try to reverse onto their site. It’s called schadenfreude, which is a German word meaning the greatest fun since you saw someone trip face first into a muddy puddle.

Even those caravanners who provided more fun than most when they arrived in the previous few days will spark up when the shiny new four-wheel-drive with the shiny new caravan trundles through the park looking for site 34. When the wife gets out and goes to the back of the caravan we know this is going to be good, because seldom is her right and left his right and left and this way is almost always that way.

As the pitch of her voice climbs so that it can be heard over several park blocks so does the level of our glee, which is why I insist my wife stay in the vehicle until the caravan is in its right place.

We feel cheated when we’re deprived of the sound by a wife using a mobile phone or a walkie-talkie to talk to hubby, and when the caravan is reversed successfully at first attempt without flapping arms and raised voices we’re more than disappointed. Schadenfreude, or pleasure in others’ misfortune, becomes displeasure in others’ success. A fluke, we’ll tell ourselves, which is why when I fluke it I am very careful to walk and talk as though getting it right first time is the usual outcome.

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A month or so ago my wife and I tried not to watch, or be seen to be watching, a couple about our age trying to reverse their camping trailer onto a site at a caravan park halfway up the Queensland coast. Each time he had another go the trailer ended up further off their site, and after 10 minutes and a bit of loud anguish the wife climbed behind the wheel, which was just as much fun. By this time more than 20 people were watching, standing in small groups, alerted by the roaring motor and the shrill cries.

Go over and offer to reverse it for them, my wife said, but no, if there had been a point when an offer of help would be appreciated it was, I sensed, long gone. Eventually they left the camper trailer where it was, unhitched their vehicle and tried to recover their dignity.

Later we met them and sat together in the camp kitchen to eat, with no mention of the reversing debacle, and we learnt something that everyone who’d relished their difficulties that afternoon should know. The husband, who worked part time as an engineer, had a progressive illness that left him weary after exertion, and so they limited their driving distances to fewer than 100km. That weariness explained his reversing confusion a few hours earlier.

I’ve noticed over the past few years that when caravanners arrive in the late afternoon, probably tired after a long drive, men of retirement age may seem anxious and a little confused as they go about the business of setting up the van. I’ve seen them raise the wrong side when levelling the caravan, and I just might have done this myself just once or twice. At this time the reversing of the caravan provides the entertainment, and there is no doubt that the hapless old bloke is aware of that.

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It’s cruel, this schadenfreude. I suppose we find the shortcomings of others reassuring, especially if those shortcomings are more pronounced than our own. Maybe we see ourselves as superior when we’ve avoided the misfortune that afflicts others, when someone else cannot do something we can do or as well as we can.

I have found that as I’ve matured so has my empathy, with the result that I am much less likely to find amusement in others’ misfortune. I still do, occasionally, but if I am amused by a caravanner’s reversing woes it is only momentarily until I give myself a virtual crack over the back of the head.

Gangster deaths lift my schadenfreude to rare levels. What a terrible waste of life! Wouldn’t hurt a fly! Criminals, car thieves among them, who come to grief on the job. Tsk tsk tsk. Politicians I don’t like who lose the election, and I wonder if there is not a generous slurp of schadenfreude in winning.

I mean, isn’t the celebration that accompanies a football team’s victory, for example, as much about winning as it is about the other team losing? The other team was defeated, beaten, smashed, and there is always shame in that. Maybe that losers’ shame is the winners’ pleasure.

And surely schadenfreude explains why Funniest Home Videos and other filmed-misadventure shows are strangely compulsive viewing. Why else would we thrill to a skater slamming into a post or a trampolining dad crashing to the ground? The canned laughter is relentless.

The cruel delight we found as children in the misfortune, frailties and differences of other children persists for many more decades than it should.

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