Sour Grapes and Schadenfreude

We’ve all heard the expression “sour grapes”. Although it’s familiar, most of us don’t really understand what its true meaning is. I heard twice, in the last several months, two well-educated women on news shows refer to someone being bummed about not getting something they wanted. The women said about this miffed attitude that “they were sour grapes”. Well that’s actually only half the story.

What is the story? It’s actually from an Aesop’s Fable, “The Fox and the Grapes.”  Aesop, according to Greek historian, Herodotus, was a slave in ancient Greece. His fables were told orally and only hundreds of years later written down. The story goes like this: A fox sees some delectable grapes hanging from a high vine. Since the grapes look irresistible, he decides that he must have them at all costs. He tries and tries to get them down but to no avail. He concludes out loud for anyone to hear that the grapes weren’t any good after all. Indeed, they were certainly sour grapes and he’s glad he didn’t eat them. So it’s not just that someone is jealous and says “Oh, I didn’t really want that good thing.” but rather, “sour grapes” means if I couldn’t attain it, it wasn’t worthwhile in the first place. The prize was actually no good.
This makes me think of another misunderstood label. Ever hear of “schadenfreude?” The usage of this German term was first heard in English publications in the 1850s but it has become a pet term used by the well-educated everywhere in the last 10 years. Schadenfreude means to feel joy from others’ misfortunes. Schaden – harm, freude – joy…literally “harm-joy” in the Germanic linguistic tradition of creating compound words by linking two words together.
I keep thinking that these two terms have a lot in common. But what?
Sour grapes means I can’t bear the thought of someone else having a good thing that I wanted so I pretend it was worthless. Schadenfreude says, “Those others who have had what I wanted have just been dumped on so I will celebrate.” Mmm…do both stem from jealousy? Jealousy stems from lack of contentment, and low self esteem.
There seems to be a rise in the use of “schadenfreude”. Why is the word “schadenfreude” getting more attention?
Well, people get offended. Their feelings are out there on the world wide web. Social media gives us a platform for venting our negative feelings. Furthermore, the support of others online who sympathize with us encourages our feelings. Only in the last ten years or so has the term increased in usage. Is it the new social media platform for launching deep seated malice that has always festered in the human heart? Or is it a change in the nature of our discourse? It is very easy to criticize others when you’re not face to face. There is a comfortable anonymity on social media. And because of social media, and our entertainment driven society, we are more aware of our shortcomings and others’ apparent success. The root cause seems to be an insecurity, a feeling of being unsettled. “The grass is always greener”, right? But there is also a sense of wanting to mete out justice in some small way. “I don’t have so you shouldn’t either.  And I am the one who will attempt to punish you even if it is a behind the scenes kind of retribution… a personal delight in your misfortune.” People are quick to “point fingers” today, not as quick to “live and let live.” There’s an eagerness to pounce, to see people get their “comeuppance”.
Since these days most people steer their own course or decide their own truth, the traditional social mores have changed. We don’t leave justice to God because we either don’t believe in Him or we have no understanding of the traditional Judeo-Christian take on the world of “turning the other cheek”. If we feel inadequate or victimized, we don’t look up for help, we look sideways to help ourselves.
Let’s say that fox hung around long enough to see someone else get the grapes off the vine. Let’s say that as the fox watches “green with envy”, this someone comes crashing down to the ground. The fox would now do well to keep from mixing schadenfreude with sour grapes.