Truttaceous was one of the words on the national middle school spelling bee that was televised this past week. The definition: "Of, relating to or resembling a trout." Maybe there was a fellow fly fisher on the judges’ panel! As I watched the show, 10, 11 and 12 year olds were spelling words that I had never even heard of, much less had a chance of answering correctly. It was really an incredible display. Sadly, the child who received “truttaceous” got it wrong. Not that I would do any better.
What intrigued me about the Spelling Bee besides the amazing children, was the announcer. He pronounced the words for the children and gave the definition again and again as often as the child needed it within the time frame. At one point, one of the kids was having trouble saying a word. The announcer said: “I’m not sure that you’ve got it,” and repeated it again until the child could say the word correctly. The announcer wanted to be sure that no child missed a word because they did not hear it correctly. The spelling bee was based on the premise of giving every child the best possible chance of success. And then the winner would be determined by merit and ability.
What an amazing idea: Giving everyone the best possible chance to succeed. This concept does not just apply to children and spelling. What would our work relationships be like if we tried our best to help our co-workers succeed, instead of trying to get ahead of them? What would our family relationships be like if we tried to help our siblings or our children become the best people they can be, rather than trying to prove ourselves better than them or burdening them with expectations?
In our world, the real world, it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting others to fail rather than succeed. There is a great German word to describe this phenomenon. “Schadenfreude” is another great Spelling Bee word. It means: "Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others."
There is a great song about Schadenfreude from the Broadway musical Avenue Q:
“Waking doormen from their naps!
Watching tourists reading maps!
Football players getting tackled!
CEOs getting shackled!
Watching actors never reach
The ending of their Oscar speech!
Schadenfreude!, Schadenfreude!, Schadenfreude!”
I know that taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is human nature. And I know it is naïve to think that we would always give others the opportunity to succeed rather than rooting for them to fail. But how much better of a place would our world be if we tried to put our family members, friends, coworkers and even strangers in a position to succeed?
The New York Times recently ran a story about an African American student named Anthony Jack who is about to graduate from Amherst University. The article states: “His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a year’s tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jack’s class was close to $48,000.” Thanks to their new admissions policy, Anthony Jack will graduate from Amherst with no debt.
Anthony Jack is a talented and smart young man who graduated with honors. I am sure that he will go on to find success in his life. And what made all of this possible was not only his intellectual abilities, but that Amherst gave him the opportunity.
You do not need to know how to spell truttaceous or schadenfreud to give someone a chance to succeed in life. You only need to remember that our task in life is not to win at the expense of others, but rather to give everyone the opportunity to display their own talents and God-given abilities.