Let’s say something bad happens to a guy. Maybe we don’t know if he had it coming. It could be a car accident, a life-altering injury, or a terrible disease. Perhaps he loses everything he owns in a natural disaster, or worse, gets caught with his hands in a metaphorical cookie jar. One day, everything’s fine, the next, curtains.
This isn’t a difficult scenario to imagine. It only takes a glance around to realize we’re all living on borrowed time. Whether we obey the rules or not, the day will come when we have to settle the check. The other shoe is going to drop, and we’re probably not going to be happy with where it hits us on its way down.
It’s practical, this acknowledgment of the looming existential smack down we all face. It makes perfect sense, too, at least from a do-what-you-must-to-keep-your-sanity-in-an-insane-world perspective. We can’t live and prosper forever, and if it makes us feel better to attribute life’s nasty slings and arrows to fate, God, the universe, our least favorite politician, or the Outreach Department of the Illuminati, that’s our prerogative.
But there’s another wrinkle. Out here among us, in the light of day, there walk humans who not only accept the idea that bad things happen to others but draw a perverse amount of joy from it. You’ve probably seen folks like this, the ones who get a kick out of believing someone is on the verge of a major smiting, whether it’s a person, religious group, city, country, political party, or football team. Yes, bad things are happening to others, but they’re happening because God doesn’t like them.
I’m not talking about rank and file members of the Westboro Baptist Church, either. Obviously, those people operate on a different level than, well, anyone with a soul. No, I mean men and women who walk the streets and can pass for one of us, but who might just as easily sell you down the river if it gave them the chance to watch you float away. On top of this, there’s a good chance they volunteered for hallway monitor duty in elementary school.
Here’s one way it happens: There’s a guy—let’s call him Smitey Man—who doesn’t like another guy, Ordinary Person. (Smitey Man doesn’t like anyone, including himself when it comes down to it, but that’s a different story.) When something bad happens to Ordinary Person, Smitey Man reasons it must be because God doesn’t like Ordinary Person. (Smitey Man wouldn’t know actual reasoning if it struck him down with a bolt of lightning.) To Smitey Man, this means that both he and God dislike Ordinary Person. This makes Smitey Man’s day because it means he and God are on the same team.
Smitey Man turns this preoccupation with self-righteousness into a lifestyle, fashioning crude signs with misspelled messages, typing exclusively in all caps, and posting incoherent diatribes across all social media. No one likes Smitey Man, but this just further proves to him that he’s doing something right. He becomes insufferable and transforms into a black hole of sadism, self-loathing, and preachiness, eventually vanishing from the known world.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what happens, at least not the vanishing part. As it turns out, Smitey Man lives a long, miserable existence, somehow outlasting all of us Ordinary People, making our lives miserable in the process.
What’s the appeal, though? Why would someone get their jollies from knowing someone else is on the receiving end of a righteous smiting? Of course, there’s the all-too-human desire for revenge, which we can all understand to some extent. Even if we claim otherwise, we’ve all felt at least an occasional twinge of satisfaction at knowing someone would get a comeuppance for ill deeds done.
There’s also the nifty word borrowed from German, schadenfreude, which refers to the sense of pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, but that doesn’t quite explain the extent of these people’s glee, either. With these individuals, cosmic justice isn’t good enough, because it takes too long. If something terrible is coming to pass, it needs to happen soon, and if it can happen today, within viewing distance, that’s even better. If possible, a public execution would be a step in the right direction.
Maybe we’ll never understand why some people seem so taken with the idea of smiting. To borrow an example from Jesus, maybe Smitey Man and his ilk will always be with us. They’ll always be waiting, screaming and gnashing their teeth, praying fervently for our smiting to appear from the heavens.
Maybe the best we can do is not be like them.