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Schadenfreude: the Most Indefensible Emotion
Regulators Prepare to Seize and Sell First Republic. That’s the headline in the financial section of the New York Times this weekend. It is news that has me feeling what I have long believed is the most vulgar and ungentlemanly of emotions.
Some brief personal banking history: When I was a boy, I opened my first savings account at Crocker Bank, because that was the “family bank.” Crocker was swallowed up by Wells Fargo in the late 1980s, and I stayed at Wells loyally until 2001, when I married my third wife. Elizabeth’s father had been an Air Force officer; her family banked with USAA, an institution that “only serves those who serve.” Spouses of members could also join, and finding the benefits of USAA excellent, I switched my own accounts over. After divorce #3 barely a year later, USAA sent me a letter telling me that ex-spouses of USAA members were entitled to their own membership. I kept my accounts at USAA.
In 2005, when I married Eira, later the mother of my children, I kept a small amount of money in my USAA account – but moved everything else to First Republic Bank. First Republic (FRB) is based in San Francisco but is a popular bank in the entertainment industry in Southern California. It proudly advertised that it was not a bank for everyone -- it was, as the advertising copy said in a tone dripping with haughtiness, “in the business of banking few, but banking them well.” Eira’s entire business management company encouraged their clients to use First Republic Bank. The clients included actors, musicians, and the place where Eira and I studied and prayed: the Kabbalah Centre. Eira’s company had brought half a billion dollars in deposits to FRB. We were invited to exclusive events for big clients and their managers. We were initially given our accounts as a courtesy, but by the time my daughter was born, we were bringing in enough on our own to meet the minimum deposit requirements for this “exclusive” bank.
Then came 2013. I had my fall, which was very public. I resigned from the college and lost all my writing and speaking gigs -- instantly plunging my family into financial ruin. The balances in our accounts fell. Eira got a letter from First Republic: either we needed to get an average daily balance of $10,000 into our accounts within two weeks, or the accounts would be closed. That included our FRB credit cards, which needed to be paid off or the balances transferred elsewhere.
I was drugged up on a psych ward trying to work up the courage to kill myself. Eira called the bank, thinking that she could deal with the people she had worked with for years. They were all mysteriously unavailable. Administrative assistants repeated the information in the letter. There was no possibility of appeal. She closed our accounts – and moved what little money she had to USAA. ( Eira and I have been divorced for years, but she and my kids also bank with their own separate memberships at USAA. My daughter is dimly aware that she has a bank account at USAA because her dad’s third ex-wife’s father was once a colonel in the Air Force.)
For 10 years, I have nurtured a deep hostility to First Republic Bank. In that time, I have asked forgiveness from people I hurt. I have extended forgiveness to people who hurt me. I can tell you incredible stories of healing and restoration, stories I have been privileged to live out in my own life. I am, to paraphrase King Lear, more sinning than sinned against – but I have forgiven everyone I can think of who has sinned against me. Every individual, that is. Not every institution.
It is silly to resent a bank! It is silly that I have fantasies of getting stupendously rich, and having FRB call me up to ask me if I’d like their wealth management services, and being able to say as archly as possible, “You turned me out when I had nothing, so how do you expect me to trust you now that I have something?”
I don’t have these fantasies about actual people. I don’t entertain daydreams of getting even with the people who were mean to me on Twitter or in the pages of LA Magazine. In my revenge reveries about FRB, it only works if I imagine a disembodied voice speaking for the bank.
I read the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas in college, and I mixed him up in my own way with the rules I’d learned from my agnostic grandmother. Aquinas famously distinguished sins of malice from sins of concupiscence. Sins of malice are when you lose the ability to crave the Good, and instead crave evil for other people. Wanting other people to experience pain or grief or disappointment: that’s a sin of malice. Sins of concupiscence happen when you crave too much of the Good and are willing to do anything to get it. Adultery is the classic sin of concupiscence. Malice is the desire to see others suffer; concupiscence is putting your own pleasure first. Concupiscence may lead to someone else’s suffering (like when your spouse finds out you cheated), but suffering isn’t the primary motive. To Aquinas, both malice and concupiscence were bad, but malice was arguably worse.
My grandmother did not read the medieval theologians, but she certainly believed that the worst sins of all were those that made other people unhappy. One of the very few times my grandmother spanked me was when she caught me holding a toy over my head, out of the reach of my leaping and wailing younger brother. “You were taking pleasure in his pain, Hugo, and that is the most awful thing anyone can ever do.”
Grandmother did not spank me when she caught me stealing $5 from her purse that same summer. I got a lecture, and she expressed disappointment, but the difference in punishment between the two offenses drove home a very basic point about my family’s moral system. There is nothing worse than delighting in another’s misfortune. Greed and lust are human; schadenfreude, as seductive as it is, is at the heart of inhumanity. It is much harder to forgive.
I have raised my children on this. I am a very relaxed parent on many things. I have only rebuked my son in public once: after a Clippers game a few years ago, when he taunted a boy in a Trailblazers jersey. L.A. had just defeated Portland at what was then the Staples Center, and my boy was high on hometown pride. I was happy for him to be happy, but not to jeer. “If seeing the other team’s fans disappointment is part of your pleasure, young man, I’ve just taken you to your last game ever.”
David looked shocked, as I used a tone I almost never use. He teared up, and I hugged him, but I stayed firm. There are many vices I will tolerate, but schadenfreude – even fleetingly– is not one of them.
My son has heard me say often that while I hope he wins at many things, his character will be revealed by the grace and charm with which he handles loss. To bear a grudge or nurse a resentment, or worst of all, to dream of revenge? That’s not what gentlemen do. (I said that to David once in front of his Colombian American mother, and she smiled at our son. “Your papa has strange ideas, and some of them are very white.”)
And yet, I confess, my readers, I am a hypocrite. It brings me a frisson of pleasure that tonight, First Republic is reeling on the precipice, in need of a bailout. I try not to think of the people impacted. I do not want bank employees – not even the ones who wouldn’t take my ex-wife’s calls – to suffer personally. That would be base, and I would feel guilty. I know that an institution does not have a consciousness independent of the people who own it or who work for it or who are served by it, but I almost permit myself to imagine that it does – that somehow, this weekend, First Republic itself thinks of all the mistakes that led it to this point, and it grieves that it kicked the Schwyzers when they were down.
Almost. I can’t quite get myself to say, with a snarl, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer bank.”
I don’t expect my readers to agree with my own weird moral hierarchy, in which dishonesty in the service of desire is a minor sin but schadenfreude a mortal and indefensible one. A therapist might say that since I am spending my Saturday night obsessing over whether I am allowed to experience a particular emotion about a bank failure, it might be more productive to simply accept that sometimes even I get to have schadenfreude and move on. I can’t seem to do it. Perhaps it’s because for me, pleasure in another’s unhappiness is what betrayal of a friend was for Dante: the most unforgivable sin of all. I am attached to my own strange moral code, my own odd notion of what it means to be a gentleman; it’s the only thing I’ve never had taken from me.
I hope the federal regulators bail out FRB. I hope no one loses a deposit. I hope the bank’s staff – yes, even the people who wouldn’t take Eira’s calls ten years ago – keep their positions.
I type those words because my code says I must, even if I don’t yet mean them.