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Jewish World ReviewDec. 16, 1999 /7 Teves, 5760

Sam Schulman

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Rejoice and kvell, though your heart is breaking

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
AT A PARTY I was trying to persuade a beautiful woman from the Minneapolis suburbs to go off for a drink with me, when she discovered I was "not a Democrat." "Oh, no," she said, "I couldn't bear to spend time with one of you plutocrats, not after all those country-club Republicans I grew up with-and then those fundamentalists in the small towns nearby." "Country Clubs? Fundamentalists?" I said. "What are you talking about? I thought all Republicans are like the only ones I know--down-at-heel, kick-up-their heels journalists, irascible alternate press owners, Jewish intellectuals, and European aristocrats." She looked at me in that sceptical Minnesota way, as if I had just offered her the Brooklyn Bridge: "Don't you know any Democrats?" "Sure," I said, a bit miffed. "You must think I'm a complete nonentity. I know plenty of big newspaper publishers, media tycoons, frighteningly-powerful lawyers, Old Etonians, and trust-fund beneficiaries."

Then I realized that there were more important divisions between human beings than democrat and republican, liberal and conservative-even male and female. No, the great divide shows itself in how you react to the happiness of others. Do you rejoice, or do you resent? Whichever of these categories you are born into-- the resenters or the rejoicers-- you will probably die in it. And your fate as a human being will be determined on this planet largely by the preponderence of one or the other in your immediate neighborhood. Heaven help you if you live in a nation of resenters-or worse, in a family filled with them.

The first great rejoicer was G-d; the first resenter Satan. If you are undecided, take your pick which to imitate. Satan, in Milton's Paradise Lost, saw Adam and Eve "imparadised in one another's arms," and could not bring himself to qvell: "O sight hateful, sight tormenting!" he cried. It positively hurt, because to see intimacy between others immediately brought to mind his solitude. This points out what is so splendid about the camp of kvellers compared to the camp of carpers: if you have time to observe and sympathize with someone else's success or happiness, you probably are less happy yourself. And, wonderfully to such people, their own state doesn't matter: Others do.

There are some who say, well, such people are merely living vicariously. Well, to paraphrase Woody Allen's line about sex, spoken by the world's greatest actress Amy Wright in "Stardust Memories," living vicariously is better than not living at all. And now something astonishing is happening: not the thousands of Internet millionaires, but the millions of their fellow citizens who cheerfully urge them on and hope to emulate them, not live through them.

When resenters rule an individual family, the youngest and strongest are the most hurt. The school of resentment teaches them to doubt their powers and to mistrust independence and success. Whole societies can be ruled by resenters. The national health services of England and Canada are devoted to the notion that everyone must suffer alike. So less than 30% of cancer victims in the UK ever see an oncologist, compared to 80% in this country (despite the fact that 100% of the Brits are insured!). Most revolutions are lead by resenters; most post-revolutionary social arrangements are based on resentment, and in the aftermath of the collapsed communist societies of eastern Europe, resentment still rules the roost, so far, fortunately, not finding organized forms of expression.

Teachers ought to be rejoicers by profession, but it puts a terrible strain on them. A good teacher in the early grades must rejoice when her pupils are smarter than she; a good university teacher must rejoice because her students are younger and will be richer than she. It's a tall order. No wonder so many of them react by becoming the most violent proponents of resentful social control. It's one thing for rich white children to be able to go to good schools, but the teachers' unions will fight to make sure that no poor or black children ever have the chance. In the 1930s things were no different: George Orwell observed the preponderance of schoolmasters in the Communist Party.

The most interesting case is that of those two great allied professions: journalists and members of the Roman Catholic celibate orders. Utterly unexpectedly, the farther downscale you go among publications, the more rejoicers you'll find. The Star and the Globe and the tabloids love a rich divorce settlement, a windfall inheritance, a recovery from a terrible accident, the birth of a child to an elderly mother. It's the upscale papers who mourn the birth of the 6 billionth child, who wonder glumly about whether this or that billionaire has "too much power," who like to contrast the life of Ronald Perelman and a street vendor (as if to the street vendor the lives of their own editors and reporters wouldn't look pretty plush). Priests and nuns are similar to reporters: Everything in our culture must tell them that they are missing out on all the fun, but if you've ever gone to a good Irish or Italian wedding, you'll see that the Fathers and the Sisters are having the best time.

Finally, there's G-d. Seven times during the first six days of the Creation, he looked at the various things He made and "saw that it was good." And on the seventh day, the goodness of the world takes on a life of its own: "Behold, it was very good"! We can't create, but when we kvell, and rejoice, and approve, we participate a bit in the act of creation that made possible all of this wonderful existence, and make us a bit less like what Wallace Stevens said we were: "An unhappy people in a happy world."

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JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.

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©1999, Sam Schulman