Last week I talked about how many of my own writing lines I’m tying up or cutting off this year, and how important it is to skirt the pits by having the right amount of support. Writing is primarily a solitary profession, however, so unless you’ve got a collaborator or a partner who is an empathetic writer, you’re likely to be doing all these things on your own. I think that solitude is necessary, because it frees the mind of distractions, but it also places an additional burden on your shoulders: you have to supervise yourself and watch your back as well as tackle the ascent.
Some writers compensate for the scariness of the lonely climb by rejoicing in the misfortunes of any vulnerable individual who dangles in their path. In pop culture, this behavior even has a name: schadenfreude*. I think this feeds a very old instinct, the sort animals use to separate from the herd those who are perceived as weak, old, and unworthy of a place within the group. Herd mentality follows and protects those who are perceived as strong, young and successful because they represent the ideal existence as well as the best chance for the group’s survival. In it’s finest form schadenfreude insures the uniformity and conformity of the group; in its worst it’s simply cannibalism.
Other writers are less interested in taking joy in the harm that befalls their colleagues. If someone helpless drops in front of them, they stop, nurture, and otherwise try to help. Generally the efforts and compassion of these writer-mentors — for the sake of argument, we’ll call it mentoring — are as unsung as their educational counterparts (although I’ve noticed over the years a disturbing and growing trend of using charity as a form of self-promotion.) Selfless mentoring is hardly as profitable or self-aggrandizing as schadenfreude, but it’s not something one does for the glory. When you help another writer, you make an investment in the future while making an homage to the past; you guide and teach to honor the craft as well as those who guided and taught you.
Schadenfreude is easy; you just take public pleasure in someone else’s pain, and trivialize it, and depersonalize the victim in the process. Rather like hacking at someone else’s fraying ropes as they slide past you, hopefully until they take a hard fall. Sounds gruesome, but as long as you depersonalize them, they won’t real people to you, and there’s a great deal of entertainment to be had from watching them struggle and slip and disappear into oblivion. There’s a sense of triumph in eliminating some of the competition as well as a ton of self-validation. They lost, you won.
Mentoring is tough; you have to carry your own weight and someone else’s, shore up their ropes and keep climbing. That can create extra stress, fray your own ropes and occasionally drag you down with the wounded one. And there are so many souls out there in desperate need of support who we see dangling, slipping, and falling — no one could ever help them all. You do what you can, but it’s never enough, and you get tired. Schadenfreude almost starts to make sense.
There’s rarely a difference in the outcome of employing schadenfreude or mentoring. If you capitalize on someone else’s misfortunes, eventually you’re going to make some serious enemies (because not everyone who falls stays in the pits and/or gives up climbing.) But the mentoring writer can’t expect thanks for their efforts, either. Ninety percent of the time as soon as the vulnerable ones are safe and on their way back up they will forget all about you. A few will even try to hack at your ropes as soon as they’re clear, maybe so they don’t have to remember that time in their life when they were so desperate (which you as a mentor now represent.) That also makes it just that much harder to reach out when you encounter the next slider. I’ve always thought that the road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions, it’s littered with them.
So how do you choose? Well, the most popular option is to avoid the choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Looking out for yourself is simply a survival tactic, and there will always be some jerk or fool out there to hurt or help the less fortunate. Why get involved at all? Indifference, keeping your head down, whatever you want to call it, is absolutely the safest thing to do. No risk involved whatsoever. If you can keep to your own ropes, look at yourself in the mirror every morning and be happy with who you see, you’re obviously doing the right thing.
If you can’t live with inaction, then you do have to choose, every day, and those choices will also have an effect on your climb. If your fellow climbers fear you, they’ll generally keep themselves and their ropes out of your way, so schadenfreude can work in your favor. Mentoring also puts you in a position of authority, but the other climbers won’t stay away — they’ll start following you, hoping you’ll be there for them when they slide. When times change for the worse, as they’ve been doing for a while lately, some of your followers will pile on you, in the same way a panicking, drowning person will try to climb on top of a rescuer to keep their head above water. The weight can become unbearable.
Hate and hope are funny things. We have an abundance of hatred in our lives, personally and professionally; it’s everwhere. It permeates our industry, corrupts our community and makes the climb that much harder. People enjoy it; they find it entertaining and self-validating. It will never go away. That’s why we have so much schadenfreude out there.
Hope is much more rare and fragile, and so easily crushed. It promises nothing, not even an equitable return for our efforts. In the face of schadenfreude, it seems to evaporate. It’s often compared to faith, which many feel abandons us at the worst possible times. In a heartbeat it can be lost, sometimes forever. There is nothing sadder in this world than an embittered mentor who has lost their faith.
But while schadenfreude is never satisfied, and is constantly on the look out for newly-frayed ropes to cut, mentoring constantly nourishes the soul. No matter the outcome, offering hope to others usually leaves us with a sense of having done something positive in a very negative world. And mentoring, and other forms of offering help, doesn’t always end in disaster. It may not be appreciated, but sometimes sharing hope is enough. Even when it isn’t, we become united in it.
Not even the most vicious practitioner of schadenfreude can hack through that connection.
Those of you who read my author blog know that earlier this week I found two objects in one day, a couple of symbols that the universe threw at me to help me understand this schadenfreude/mentoring dilemma a little better. Without using a single word, they illustrate it far better than I ever will:
How a Writing Mentor Can Help You by Julie Rayl
*Defined by sociologist Theodor Adorno as the largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate.