Schadenfreude is the word for the kick one gets from watching somebody fall down the stairs. But what’s the word that describes the mixed feelings you have watching a fellow human being look foolish and sympathetic at the same time? When you laugh at somebody you know could be you?
I sent round a YouTube piece yesterday of a 99-year-old woman calling the cops to find out if the big storm that had hit overnight had affected her daughter in another city, whom she hadn’t heard from. (For the English, see below.) It was clear she was worried.
She was also hard of hearing, and the poor cop at 911 couldn’t make her understand there was nothing to worry about. With each new “eh?” the situation got funnier and funnier until I was rolling on the floor. I had to e-mail the link to friends.
I don’t know whether the fact that the piece was in German had anything to do with it – I think the situation should be obvious despite a language barrier (and I provided a translation) – but I got back some interesting responses, all sympathetic to the old woman. Doesn’t social services provide hearing aids? Doesn’t this make you sad? Don’t you realize this could soon be you? Nobody else so far has found it amusing, much less rolling on the floor funny.
That makes me think that I’ve done a good job surrounding myself with friends with a greater sense of decency than I have myself. Always nice to be able to pat yourself on the back for your ability to select people of character as friends.
But what am I to do with my gut reaction, which is to laugh. Even now, just thinking of that interaction and hearing the cops laughing in the background brings a smile to my face. I’m just going to have to admit I like to laugh at people’s weaknesses. If I laugh at others when they’re down, I’m inviting them to laugh at me when I’m down. So be it. We’ll go through life this way. We all end up dead and gone. My goal is to go with a smile on my face.
I came across this YouTube video, incidentally, while checking out the story of a woman named Christina Zehnbauer, in Mannheim, Germany. The story never traveled outside the German-speaking world, evidently, although it was big news for a while inside. It involves a woman who calls the cops to complain her neighbor is playing his music so loud that her “plates are flying off the wall.” The cop does a masterful job of calming her hysterics, and the call ends well, with the two of them laughing together, as he promises to send a car around to investigate.
The problem is, somehow this conversation got out and found its way onto the internet. One of Frau Zehnbauer’s neighbors told her about it, and next thing she’s got a lawyer and is suing the cops for insulting her civil liberties.
These bare facts do not tell the real story, however, which is that for a brief while Frau Zehnbauer was the talk of the nation. TV channels picked it up, one of Germany’s most famous cabaret comedians goes to meet her with TV reporters recording the event, and Frau Zehnbauer goes along and plays smoochie-smoochie for the camera with this most famous of her many fans. The uploaded YouTube 911 call (it’s 112 in Germany and most of Europe) is picked up everywhere. Children memorize it and recite it. A rock group uses it as lyrics to a song.
And for a while everything Frau Zehnbauer does is national news. The power company turns her lights out, and cameras are there to film her plight. She has a fight with her ex-husband and all the neighbors – and all the cameras – are there as witnesses. A neighbor claims she was injured in a fight with Frau Zehnbauer and the cameras film the reconciliation. Her sister-in-law with the same last name complains her life is hell. She is featured in another video titled “Frau Zehnbauer against the world.” and the camera films her reconciliation with the entire neighborhood she has pissed off – including Mr. Ellenburger, the man she originally complained about who was playing his music so loud the plates were “flying off the wall.”
If you speak German, what may well first tickle your funnybone is the fact that Christina Zehnbauer is speaking in dialect. Germany, like many places, has a history of snobbery about regional dialects, and they are often used in joketelling for the added bumpkin effect. When Christina Zehnbauer shouts to the rooftops in Kurpfalz Dialect (the area around Heidelberg/Mannheim), it’s funny. Never mind this may be a woman in distress.
Bülent Ceylan, the comedian who shows up at Frau Zehnbauer’s doorstep with a rose in his hand and cameras turning, is also from Mannheim, as it turns out, and in one of his TV appearances he goes into character as Harald, the local who is incensed at the way people make fun of people from Mannheim just because of the way they speak. The skit is hilarious because the reference is to Christina Zehnbauer. And the TV special is clearly squeezing every ounce of humor out of the situation it can, making the story into one of “love at first sight.” Ceylan, like most comedians, who reserve the right to laugh at absolutely anything, makes fun of Christina, but you have to believe she is enjoying the limelight. And he’s totally charming, and I’m not so sure I wouldn’t enjoy being in Christina’s place at the time.
If I had stopped with the original telephone call to 911 gone viral, as most people would, I would have simply enjoyed the laugh and moved on. And probably I should have. Amusing situations seldom bear analysis. Unfortunately (or not), in this era of YouTube videos, a whole bunch of other videos have been uploaded of Christina making a fool of herself as well. I watched in fascination, until I realized what I was looking at was a troubled soul living on welfare, unable to run her life with any sense of balance. She has no off button, lets invective fly at will, and is capable of turning half the world against her every morning before breakfast and the rest by noon. She has two daughters who suffer from her excesses, and who have lost a whole lot of dignity with Christina’s “fifteen minutes of fame” – only this time it was notoriety and weeks, not fifteen minutes. To watch it all is to stop laughing. And maybe even start feeling a little sheepish.
And if you didn’t feel sheepish watching a fellow human being self-destruct, maybe you would when you read that Christina Zehnbauer died this week of unknown causes. They think it was a heart attack, but she was only 47. I’ve searched for the reason, but find only one local paper, the Wormser Zeitung, with even that much information. It looks like she’s yesterday’s news, and we’re all moving on.
In a totally unrelated event, I happened across an essay by a Lutheran minister on the subject of the ethics of one of America’s most outspoken sex columnists, Dan Savage. Savage breaks all the rules of our traditional sources of cultural authority in religion, which places sex at the center of morality and paints virtue in terms of sacrifice, celibacy, and control. Savage’s ethical code is focused on honesty, trust and an acceptance of human appetites which must be accommodated. Needless to say I’m with Savage. For me, sexual loyalty is way down the list of virtues, and honesty is at the very top. Perhaps that’s why, as I’ve reflected on the plight of Christina Zehnbauer and the grannie worried about her daughter, I’ve decided I’m going to continue to laugh heartily and without guilt when faced with human failure. If I can do that with my own failures, why should I not do the same with the failure of others? To laugh in someone’s face is usually unkind, and you have to be sure you’re laughing at yourself when you see another’s fumbling and not kicking someone when they’re down. But as I age I recognize more and more each day how dignity falls away in time. The solution is not to pretend something isn’t funny when it is. The solution is to recognize you don’t have to be dishonest when looking at the human condition in its entirety.
I’m not suggesting that sympathetic laughter is the only laughter I would allow myself. Derision and ridicule are honest responses to arrogant fools. I feel no guilt deriding the Roman Catholic hierarchy for their hypocrisy in claiming exclusive control over the definition of morality. And I feel no reason not to ridicule the likes of Newt Gingrich when he speaks of family values.
But I also know smiling while watching old people shuffle and cup their ears is not derision or ridicule, but a way of recognizing we’re all on the way to losing it.
And we might as well go down laughing.
For transcript and translation to Frau Zehnbauer 911 call, click here.
For transcript and translation to Grannie call, click here.