Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mudita, or Sympathetic Joy

One of Orwell’s great insights in 1984 was that when a language lacks a word for a concept, it becomes difficult for people to think coherently in terms of the idea. My vague recollection from 1984 was a sense that while this was a very important idea, the extent to which it drove people's thinking was slightly exaggerated in the book. Suppose there’s a word in a foreign language that English doesn’t have. It’s not like it’s impossible to express this idea in English, otherwise how could you ever convey to an English speaker what it means? Rather, it’s that words work as shorthand for broader concepts, and having a convenient shorthand helps people to recognise the concept and spot it more in their life. When something takes two sentences to explain instead of a single, immediately understood word, this acts as a surprisingly large friction in people's thought processes.

Consider, for instance, the scope of some possible virtues and vices, as an English speaker understands them.

The opposite of stupidity is intelligence.

The opposite of greed is generosity.

The opposite of cowardice is courage.

By having opposites, it helps to reinforce the need to not only eliminate the vice, but to cultivate the virtue. If they are at opposite points on a continuum, having a term for the other end of the scale helps remind people that they ought to cultivate a mindset to the further extreme, to goodness, rather than simply being contented with not being in the left tail of badness.

So along these lines, the opposite of envy is … what, exactly?

Admit it, nothing is quite springing to mind, is it?

You can roughly get the concept, but there is no equivalent word that comes to mind with anything like the immediacy of love/hate. In English, there simply isn’t a word for the opposite of envy. And I’ll wager that until now, you probably hadn’t considered this fact.

There is, however, a word in Pali, the language of the Buddha. And that word is Mudita. It is one of the four Brahmaviharas, that Buddhists are exhorted to work on in their mental development. The closest English translation, which I like, is “sympathetic joy”. To take joy in the happiness of others. To be pleased for their success, not because you can get anything out of it, but simply because other people’s good fortune brings you happiness intrinsically. This is the opposite of envy, where other people’s success brings you pain and resentment because it didn’t happen to you.

I’ve also seen it translated as “altruistic joy”. Like all cases where translation is ambiguous, it blends both concepts. Like sympathy, we are happy on behalf of another, just as standard sympathy is feeling sad on behalf of another. Like altruism, we are happy because of the prospect of there being good for the world in general.

And as Orwell noted, without the concept to anchor on, it is harder to exhort people to develop it. We know not to have envy, and be bitter at other’s good fortune. But there is less distinction made between being indifferent to others’ success, and being actually gladdened by it.

Unlike the strong form of the Orwell idea, people have some instinctive sense of the concept, even when they lack the word as a shorthand. I'll further wager that when you think about the concept, you know who amongst your friends and family scores well in this respect. People who have sympathetic joy tend to be happier, because the set of good fortune among your friends and family is larger than the set of just your own. They tend to have more friends, because people are always pleased to be able to share their success with others without worrying about hurting their feelings or arousing resentment.

Sympathetic joy is not in vogue these days. It’s not that it’s actively discouraged. It’s just that it’s yet one more casualty of the rise of narcissism – thinking only in terms of oneself, and what one can get. Narcissism does not necessarily conflict with generosity, which is perhaps the closest single-word analogue in English. But generosity is different – to give things away is an action, and usually a public one at that. By increasing the public angle, one can fit in generosity with narcissism – look how benevolent I am, facebook friends! Here’s me flying to Haiti to help build houses.

But sympathetic joy doesn’t work that way. It’s a thought, not an action. It might sometimes express itself in speech, but it doesn’t tend to manifest much in ways that lend themselves to social media posts. Rather, the root mindset is one of empathy, thinking from the point of view of others. Take that away, and the tendency towards sympathetic joy goes away too. The other person must be the subject. They can’t simply be an object against which one’s own lack of success is measured, and against which oneself is the real protagonist.

I try to cultivate sympathetic joy in small ways (not always with success, obviously). For it to be a good test, it has to be something that one actively wants oneself – something that, if one were unguarded, might easily slip into envy. To be pleased at someone else’s extreme wealth is less difficult if one is not particularly driven by wealth as a goal, for instance. In my case, it was always pretty girls. The younger Holmes, especially before I understood game, would often get annoyed by seeing alpha male assholes with hot chicks. But these days, I try to reflect, “Man, good for homie over there. He’s done well for himself!”. When cultivated, this actually becomes easier to do than simply eliminating envy by sheer willpower and replacing it with nothing. Substituting it with sympathetic joy gives one a reason to be more than simply indifferent or disinterested. If successful, it actually becomes easier to be glad at seeing a pretty girl (that one can't have) with another guy, than seeing a pretty girl on her own. In the first case, one can redirect greed towards sympathetic joy. In the latter, one has to work on the harder task of mere renunciation. 

At one end of the scale, you have people who claim that every time a friend succeeds, they die a little. Usually this is said in a way that the speaker mostly intends jest, but any perceptive audience understands that there is likely a considerable degree of seriousness. It nearly always causes me to think, if not say: what a sad way to go through life, torn up inside by good things in the world. Wouldn’t you be ashamed to say this, even if you felt it?

And at the other end?

Also many years ago, the teenage Holmes used to listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Being not quite so reactionary at the time, Seeger’s communism, while still palpable and striking me as rather stupid, didn't seem quite as tiresome. But even with the benefit of hindsight, Seeger comes across as a complex figure who wrote about a wide range of subjects, and a man whose virtues one can admire without endorsing the whole package. In a better ordered society where power was actually secure, writing songs with vague communist sympathies would be as harmless as writing songs about absolute monarchy is today.

Seeger also wrote one of the great songs about sympathetic joy.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

It's not "I must work to build a better world". That may be practically a more useful and motivating sentiment. But at heart, it still has a considerable tendency for the real emphasis to be the word I. Even with the best of intentions, egotism tends to creeps in. But in Seeger's song, not only did one not cause the world to go well, one won't even be there to witness it. And still, one wishes for it all the same. The above song may not be a great motto to get people to actually work for a better world. But it is a strong test of whether one's benevolence survives any sense of self-aggrandisement. As an example of mudita, it is superb.

It is easy to overstate the burden of sympathetic joy, as some chore and mental constraint. To focus, in other words, on the empathy and sympathy aspect. But this misses the other half. Sympathetic joy is also joy.

I simply cannot hear the song without smiling.

Yes, well may the world go,
When I'm far away.