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This is a disconnected post: a collection of related thoughts that have been rumbling around my brain for the last few days, obviously thematically connected but not quite coalescing. The closest I can get to any thematic unity is to say this is about schadenangst, a word I just made up. It’s a distant cousin to schadenfreude, only whereas the shame in the latter comes from taking joy in others miseries, the shame in this comes from witnessing the miseries of others and feeling anxious that the same fate might befall you.

My own schadenangst began at the end of the school year, when I learned that the parents of one of Simon’s school friends were divorcing. They married young, started their family young, and were faced with the physical and financial stresses that come from trying to balance work, parenting, and school at the same time. When I heard the news, all I could think was that this couple never had a chance to see how they’d function under normal circumstances and what a potential waste it was. And, of course, I felt for the child and worried about he might fare in the split.

Then, just six weeks later, came news of another split. I know this family better in some ways, but can only vaguely speculate about the stresses that wore them down.  They’re a young-ish family too, with their most recent child still a baby. This one hit closer to home. All I could/can think is that the baby will never know an intact family and that the oldest child, Simon’s friend, will surely miss seeing his father every day. I know that at this stage in Simon’s development Matt’s role is starting to overshadow mine.

But honestly, that’s piddly. Two days ago I saw an article about a woman arrested for wanton endangerment and aggravated DUI. She was pulled over at 3:45 a.m. for driving without her headlights on and swerving in traffic. She failed an on-site sobriety test, refused the blood test, and is now in a Louisville Metro corrections facility. But here’s the lede: Her 6-year-old daughter was in the car with her. And I know this girl because she played soccer with Simon this spring. The now incarcerated mom and I sat side-by-side many a Tuesday night, chatting about our kids, school, soccer, and other family stuff. What was she thinking? And who is taking care of the daughter now? (This woman was a single mom.)

All of which takes me back about three or four years to the most unimaginable thing to ever happen to our circle of acquaintances. Someone who briefly sang in Matt’s band was involved in a murder-suicide attempt. The guy shot his step-son, who thankfully survived, before turning the gun on himself and dying by his own hand. It took Matt and me quite some time to absorb that news.

How does this happen? I intellectually know some of the answers: youth and inexperience, unrealistic expectations, strained resources, depression, addiction, disease. I’ve seen some of these factors up close and should understand them pretty well. I don’t, but I should. And while I’ve done all I can to prevent some of these scenarios from befalling me (starting my family when I was older and more stable, monitoring drinking habits very carefully and looking for warning signs, finding a physical outlet for stress, living somewhere where I have a large support network, marrying a responsible and compatible person), there’s no guarantee that disaster won’t one day befall me or anyone else. There’s not even a guarantee that one day the neurons won’t misfire and turn one of us into someone new and unstable.

Our lives seem so tenuous when I look at the domestic trials around me, and I’m not sure in some cases if I should feel sympathy or anger. I guess it’s a little of both. I don’t have enough facts about any to fairly judge, but the temptation is there — not because I want to find fault with others — but rather because I want to know exactly what to not do to avoid following a similar path. I want to know if these folks saw their selves or relationships going off the rails before it was too late. And, if they had, what kept them from getting back on track.

So I’m back to my “shameful anxiety”. Shameful because it takes other people’s miseries and makes it all about yourself, but perhaps a smidge less shameful if one can find a way to make it instructive.

One Response to “Schadenangst”

  1. blg says:

    Early last year, a twelve year old boy in our town committed suicide. It was a shock to the entire town; David was well liked, no reason to think he’d been bullied, his family situation seemed stable, his friends believed he was a happy successful kid.
    For a variety of reasons, Doug and I went to a session held at the school the week after the death, led by a grief counselor. It’s objective was to help parents know how to answer their kids’ questions. Or at least to give them some ideas, or validate their instincts.
    Anyway, in the course of this, one mother stood up and said, “Today my daughter asked me, ‘If David was happy and no one knows why he did this, how do I know that I won’t be next?'”
    The counselor didn’t have a real great, or memorable answer. But your questions today made me remember this. Perhaps part of your anxiety is wanting to know why these sad things happened, in order to reassure yourself that you are different, that some awful thing can’t happen to you.

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