She loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.
-JD Vance, from Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
The word hillbilly generally refers to an unsophisticated and oftentimes uneducated person from the Appalachian or sometimes Ozark Mountains. I grew up far from the Ozarks in sunny San Diego, but this statement from JD Vance’s memoir could have been said about my family.
I grew up around addicts and alcoholics who spent their welfare money on booze and drugs. Visiting aunts and uncles often involved trips to trailer parks, where walls smelled of stale cigarettes and beer. I remember once asking my 13 year old cousin what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said, “on welfare—it’s free money.” That same cousin spent his 16th birthday in jail for drug possession and at 40 had heart surgery—the result of a lifetime of Meth use.
My mother did her best to shield me from the hopelessness she had grown up in. And she did this by putting me in good schools, where I was surrounded by kids like me, who dreamed big. But, on those family visits, I’d have to hide my dreams, otherwise I’d hear things like “look who thinks she’s something”, or “she’s getting too big for her britches”.
There is a German word schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. My family was definitely guilty of of this, but they went one step further; they were also active participants in wanting to keep me down. I know that my experience is not particular to America’s poor white families or religious or non-religious families. I think basically anyone who is unhappy with his or her life, anyone who has regrets or resentments, wants to pull others down into their misery. As the old saying goes, “misery loves company”.
Every year at this time, as I anticipate Passover, I think about the slaves leaving Egypt and I think metaphorically about what I might be “enslaved” to. Maybe it’s an idea or even a relationship, but I think long and hard about something I definitely need to free myself from.
This year I am freeing myself from schadenfreude. All too often I have allowed those in my life who take pleasure in my misfortune. But life is too short to allow unsupportive people in our lives. We deserve better. And so do others. It’s also important to make sure that I wish others well, even at particularly challenging times in my life.
Because the truth is that we are better as a whole if we are better as individuals. Rather than “misery loves company”, we should remember that “joy loves company”.