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Delight In The Misfortune Of Others

Barbara Walters declared General David Petraeus the Most Fascinating Person of 2012.  He won the “honor” in 2010 for his military skills and achievements.  Back then he joined other Fascinating Persons like Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama and Alan Greenspan and Steve Jobs.

This year his affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell and his subsequent stepping down as head of the CIA had him beating out Gov. Christie, Hilary Clinton, Seth McFarland and, of course, Honey Boo Boo.

Walters cooed over the cast of characters that became involved in the Petraeus scandal: the West Point biographer, the socialite, the twin, the entire state of Florida.  Even though we had a presidential election this year, Petraeus made better copy.  His mistakes made him the only person ever to become Most Fascinating Person twice.

And I hate this. I was OK with the Petraeus story when it was about how an affair brought down the head of the CIA.  It was shocking how someone who had been so admirable all his life, stumbled so tragically. It gave the military community a chance to talk openly about what really goes into-- and comes out of-- a military marriage during a time of war.

But this Fascinating Person thing just looks like what the Germans call schadenfreude--pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.  I didn’t hear any of that at the beginning of this story.  I heard a lot of military people who were saddened over the whole thing.

The unholy glee behind it disturbs me. It is ugly. I admit we are not first generation to be subject to having others find pleasure in our misfortune. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mr. Bennett folds away his family scandal by asking his daughter, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

I think we live for more than that.  I think we are so drawn to the stories of other people because we see ourselves in them.  We get inspired by other people.  We learn from other people.  We borrow the experience of others to broaden our lives.  We take stories like the Petraeus affair as a cautionary tale and apply them to our own lives.

There is a time to pay attention to a national story.  There is a time to stop and let things alone and allow people to heal.  And then there is a time where a story turns and it stops saying anything about the people involved and starts saying far too much about the rest of us.

We've reached that time.  So let's move forward into stories about how military families avoid infidelity and how they can build better marriages and how they can reunite successfully.  There are so many other stories out there.  Let's move on to one of them. Please.

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