A Marvellous Cure For Stress

Christopher Fowler

Seeing others having a worse time than yourself is strangely calming.

Sometimes the public is right. In Alwyn Turner's 'All In It Together', his study of England in the 21st century, a pattern becomes discernible. Turner has been obsessively chronicling decades of political and social rule and misrule for years, and has now reached events in the very recent past. What he finds is that Public Opinion, such a real thing that it becomes a living character in Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld', usually has the final say. A median is uncovered that reveals how far we will go, how far we can be pushed. At least, until the present apathy of the post-pandemic nation has settled over us like a damp flannel. London was awarded the Olympic Games the day before it was horrifically bombed by suicidal fundamentalists, and none of the expected reprisal attacks on Muslims occurred. Could one mood have affected the other? Turner shows how the nation's psyche returns to a baseline again and again, although that line moves to incorporate changing public attitudes. How could it have been unacceptable for me to get married one month and perfectly fine the next? Public Opinion. I hear a lot more of it these days, sitting in hospitals (my NHS cancer centre melted down today, where a brief appointment turned into a four-hour stress-mess) and as a writer I would be foolish not to heed it. Under discussion by those waiting like me were appointment delays, transport problems, unruly children, popular TV dramas and books. I try to note trends and fashions, longstanding loyalties and dislikes, which all authors should do to stay relevant. When I returned home feeling tense and sore my first instinct was to play something soothing and fall asleep in a hot bath. Instead I bought doughnuts and chocolate and began to binge-watch every single Marvel movie and one-shot in the correct order. Well, it's already working. Marvel Phases 1 - 4 are proving to be something of a wondrous pick-me-up. My history with the stories goes back to when I was nine. We still have Stan Lee on a video call somewhere, him ever the huckster, still hyping himself just before his death. So when I hear someone say that they would never watch such trash, part of me gets riled. Seeing the films placed together you can't help but be amazed by the care and complexity with which each part of the puzzle interlocks. And seeing others having a worse time than yourself is strangely calming. My vein getting torn up this morning was nothing compared to Gwyneth Paltrow having to put her entire hand into Robert Downey Jr's chest. I thought my blood work was bad? Iron Man is at 56% toxicity! Does Asgard exist in Spidey's world? Is the metaverse around in Captain America's? And a thousand engineering questions are thrown up along the way. Tony Stark is just human, so what cushions him when his alloy suit is hit by a missile? What's in that chest thing, some kind of miniature nuclear reactor? How the hell did he manage to make one in a torchlit cave in Afghanistan? The truth is that if fiction makes you care enough, you fill in the answers yourself. That's why it de-stresses, because all the best stories require a bit of extra work, and work is wonderfully distracting. And Public Opinion, which loves the films, is the way to go - at least for the next few days.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 06/04/2022 - 18:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A vein torn up? Ripped open during a procedure?Presumably the bleeding was stopped quickly. That hot bath would have been a bad idea so we're very glad you didn't give in to the temptation. This isn't the first time you've had that sort of problem so I'm wondering about the training of nurses - or are they allowing doctors to do the injection thing these days?
Sequences are very good for calming. Once I've finished the Terry Pratchett shelf I'll go back up to Chris Fowler and start another re-read there. I watch Men in Black (all three), the Princess Bride (did you hear Mr. Potemkin as Benjamin Franklin the last two nights?), and I might even consider the Harry Potter films.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 06/04/2022 - 18:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

First, sorry to hear about your painful experience at the hospital.. Now, about 'Seeing others having a worse time than yourself is strangely calming.' Two reasons --- with perhaps some overlap depending on the circumstances: sympathy (or possibly, empathy) and relief that your situation could be worse. Of course, beyond simply 'calming' there's taking actual pleasure in the misfortunes of others. And, this appears to be pretty much universal; certainly well beyond the well-known (and well-used) German 'Schadenfreude.' The French speak of 'joie maligne,' and the Japanese point out that, 'The misfortunes of others taste like honey.' Of course, this begs the question: why there is no similar word or phrase readily available in English? There was an attempt with the introduction of 'epicaricacy' in the 16th c. but obviously it never caught on. As for the Marvel 'canon' --- most of it (at least what I've seen) can be viewed as presenting self-selecting 'intellectual puzzles' at the 'CF level' or can simply be allowed to wash over you in great swatches of color and sound, with no thoughts about 'how' or 'why.' required..

Peter T (not verified) Wed, 06/04/2022 - 19:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sticking needles into veins is up there with plastering and welding and playing the violin. Not everyone can do it and even those who can have done huge damage doing it badly before they learnt.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 06/04/2022 - 20:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Like la Rochefoucauld said, "There is something not displeasing in the misfortunes of our friends."
If your surgeon gets the Nobel Prize for Medicine, get him to thank you in his acceptance speech.

I was amused at the time by a friend's response to the London bombings: "The French never were good losers." but when I quoted it to others it provoked outrage. The fact that several of the dead were muslims and the LT workers involved in immediate rescue work included muslims meant that there was a more complicated response from the Great British Public than there might otherwise have been.

I haven't seen any of the Marvel films. I feel no more eager for all your enthusiasm, I'm afraid.

Perhaps there is no English word for "schadenfreude" because there is no need for one. Stu-I-am. It may be our natural default condition.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 06/04/2022 - 21:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Roger Roger, your 'tongue-in-cheek' explanation for the lack of a commonly used English equivalent to 'Schadenfreude,' of course, has had many contrary views over the years from some journalists and other occasional thinkers --- essentially (and wrongly pointing out...) that there is not need for such a word since it is somehow an 'un-English" feeling or emotion. It may be a touch more subtle and less about celebrating the failure of others so that we might come out on top, as it is simply the uniting self-righteous joy in watching 'our betters' (or would be 'betters') get caught with their hands in the biscuit tin, for example.

You may recall the sarcastic 'Mr. Bennet' in the quintessentially English novel, 'Pride and Prejudice' opining, 'For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn.' And giving the matter his own twist as might be expected --- George Orwell remarked in one of his 'Essays,' that the English are unique in celebrating military disasters, not triumphs..

Jo W (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 05:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Chris, sorry for your rotten time at the clinic yesterday. Keep binge watching and stuffing yourself with jammy doughnuts!
Oh and thanks for sharing that ad for ‘ The Slag of Snacks’, I haven’t seen it before. Now I’ll think of that every time I
see a certain brand of sugary confections in the shop.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 08:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry to hear about your struggles - immersion in books and films is certainly a great help

Stu - an English word for schadenfreude might be gloating : 'to observe or think about something with triumphant and often malicious satisfaction, gratification, or delight over an enemy's misfortune'. Pretty close......

Roger (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 11:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Schadenfreude is usually a quiet pleasure, Paul C, whereas gloating is loud and vocal - The most famous example was probably William Whitelaw: "Ted says we shouldn't gloat, wrong to gloat, mustn't do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I'm gloating like hell."

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 14:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Words are interesting - their use, meaning, creation, etc. So I looked up schadenfreude on Google. Apparently there is a word for it in English - obscure - but a word nonetheless. Epicaricacy.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 15:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks, Roger - that's a good point but according to this quote from Homer it is possible to gloat in silence :

"Restrain yourself... and gloat in silence. I'll have no jubilation here. It is an impious thing to exult over the slain"

Alan R (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 17:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think you are very brave.

Joel (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 17:57

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i have enjoyed the marvel experience, and am glad you are too. it was such a relief when special effects finally caught up to the super hero stories. when i was young, seeing spiderman spin a web made of brown rope was less than satisfying. i have always enjoyed fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroes from my little room way out in the mojave desert. they were my "classics". sorry to hear about the mauling you received.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 20:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Roger and @Paul C Roger/Paul --- Since I started this schadenfreude (vs. gloating) business, I probably should bring it to an end before we're all barred for inflicting public boredom. The main conceptual difference, according to those who study human emotion, is less a matter of how they're expressed than how they arise or are generated. In the case of gloating, it is generally accepted that there is an action (direct or indirect) of some kind by the gloater which leads to it.

The feeling of schadenfreude, on the other hand, is considered to be almost always passive with the individual being an 'observer,' rather than an 'actor.' As might be expected, there are other 'conceptual' distinctions made by psychologists (and philosophers as well) for classification purposes. Are there exceptions ? No doubt, as with anything dealing with the human condition.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 21:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was just beginning to... enjoy, shall we say, Stu-I-Am?... myself. I'm not sure whether it's Schadenfreude, gloating or epicaricacy or some combination .

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 07/04/2022 - 21:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well explained, Stu - I agree

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Fri, 08/04/2022 - 13:27

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I'm with you, Roger. I was enjoying the posts over, whatever....

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 09/04/2022 - 21:50

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I start beginning German on Monday so I'll hang on to Schadenfreude until we start adding vocabulary to the usual beginning words. I can't quite imagine meeting a friend with, "Good morning, Axel, how are you and have you experienced schadenfreude lately?"

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 10/04/2022 - 01:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen+Martin Even though Oscar Wilde quipped that, “life is too short to learn German,' with some diligence you should be able to write and speak reasonably well in a year. Those pesky compound words ('ike 'Schadenfreude'), some parts of German grammar, sentence structure and remembering noun gender and cases will certainly keep your mind in gear which afterall, is one of the benefits of learning a new language. Alles Gute!

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 13/04/2022 - 00:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

True, Stu, and I have the minor advantage of always paying attention to other language intrusions into my surroundings. A word based person for sure. I know where to place my forebears now and rather glad that it is northern rather than southern Germany. We only got as far as "Mein nome ist..." I have trouble already keeping the French out of the language.