Dancing with the Devil

From The Wall Street Journal:

How can we reconcile ourselves to the fact that bad feelings—feelings like anger, envy, contempt, spite and Schadenfreude—play such a prominent role in our mental lives? According to Krista Thomason, a philosophy professor at Swarthmore, we would do well to regard them as beneficial more than bad. Such feelings, she says, should be seen as worms in the garden of our mind. Sure, they are “weird and ugly.” But—like worms enriching soil—they are integral to our self-enrichment and self-care. Ms. Thomason believes that by focusing on the unattractive qualities of bad feelings, as we tend to do, we lose sight of their value, and she wants to correct the record.

In what sense do anger, envy, Schadenfreude, spite and contempt contribute to self-care? They all, Ms. Thomason says, help us pick ourselves up when we have suffered some kind of knock, deprivation or opprobrium. If we get angry when someone disses us, for example, our anger is a way of activating—and putting our indignant selves in touch with—our self-respect. When we feel Schadenfreude, Ms. Thomason notes, it is generally directed toward those who act as if they’re above us: If they take a tumble, we get a boost. “When the cupcakes baked from scratch by the self-righteous super mom go uneaten at the neighborhood block party,” Ms. Thomason observes, we “can’t help but smirk,” and our sense of personal value goes up a notch.

When it comes to envy, Ms. Thomason says, we feel it principally toward those who possess something we want but who deserve it less than we do. Our envy, then, is a way of asserting a claim—there’s a balance that needs to be righted. As for contempt, we feel it toward those whom we deem less competent than ourselves and so—in a world where we are always sustaining blows to our self-esteem—it’s a way of reaffirming our stature and restoring our confidence.

And then there’s spite. We exhibit it, Ms. Thomason says, when we feel we are being told what to do—say, our spouse is nagging us to control our sugar intake and so, to spite her, we eat four bowls of ice cream. The core motivation, in such a case, is to regain our autonomy. “Spite is a way of asserting that my life is mine to live,” Ms. Thomason says, “and that I’m the one who gets to decide who I am.”

Anger contributes to self-respect, contempt to self-esteem, spite to self-mastery, Schadenfreude to self-worth and envy to self-assertion: All are modes of self-care, which for Ms. Thomason is a form of resilience, not a shallow self-help means of “feeling good about yourself.” But for her argument to work, as she for the most part concedes, our feelings must at least be reasonably justified. Toward the person who cut us off in traffic anger might well be appropriate, but banging our car into his would not be. Spiting our spouse by eating an extra bowl of ice cream might well assert autonomy in a restorative way, but spiting her by putting ourselves into an insulin coma would not.

As she makes her claims, Ms. Thomason faults Christian and Buddhist saints for failing to recognize the psychological benefits that our bad feelings provide. Here, though, her argument becomes less persuasive. Such saints, by and large, were focused on something different from self-care: They worried about the moral costs that our bad feelings impose on others. Even when anger is justified, they felt, it closes our hearts and lessens our capacity for mutual understanding. Contempt causes us to despise other people and thereby retreat from our common humanity. Spite leads us to hurt them and Schadenfreude to exult in their misfortune.

But when it comes to the ills the bad feelings can inflict, Ms. Thomason pulls her punches. Anger, she suggests, is morally harmful—it hurts others—if it causes us to lash out but not if we simply “sit with it” until it goes away. Maybe, but how often does that happen? Contempt and Schadenfreude, she says, can actually bring us closer to our fellow human beings, assuming that we’re “laughing at others because we know we’re capable of the same blunders.” But is that how we truly experience those feelings? To claim that the psychological benefits of our bad feelings outweigh their moral harmfulness, it seems, Ms. Thomason has to gloss over how morally problematic they are.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Were PG a student at Swarthmore, he thinks he would avoid Professor Thomason’s classes.

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