We’ve had schadenfreude and weltschmerz, ennui and litost. For a while, we were captivated by glasnost and perestroika and more recently it has been all about hygge and lagom.
One of the great things about foreign languages is the words they use for which there is no real translation. Often they tell us what we are missing in the anglophone world. This week there was a new one for me (and probably for you, too) but an idea that our times so badly need.
When the England rugby union captain Dylan Hartley was excluded from the British Lions tour to New Zealand, he generously tweeted his congratulations to rivals, punctuated by a pithy six-letter word I’ve never heard before.
There followed a quick digital rustle on sports desks around the world, and a slightly puzzled reaction.
Firgun (n) (פרגון, pronounced FEER-GOON, from modern Hebrew): a genuine, unselfish delight or pride in the accomplishment of someone else; giving credit where it is due, fairly and without jealousy.
In essence, the opposite of schadenfreude.
If there was surprise at Hartley’s reaction, it was not just that a man known for his combative edge (he was once banned for gouging an opponent’s eyeball) had shown great humility and selflessness at a moment of personal disappointment. It was that he was displaying a quality that has become rare in these self-obsessed times.
An Israeli friend said firgun is a common enough concept back home. You might say it when someone has acquired a new job, or even a new shirt. But it’s more than just a compliment, and goes much further than a mere “well done”. It comes apparently from the German word vergönnen, meaning not to begrudge someone something. It has altruism at its essence, a vicarious surge of feelgood at the triumphs, however small, of another human being.
What a tremendous psychological reflex to have. After all, enjoying our own successes and achievements, whatever they may be, has its limitations: after a certain age – quite a young age in fact – they tend to come not so thick and fast. Delighting in the triumphs of our families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, networks, rivals, bosses and masters is, by contrast, a near limitless experience.
So where has firgun been all these years? What is it in us that makes it hard to delight in the success of others – and even to conspire against it? That makes us feel small when we see someone else growing in stature? Where does it come from, this notion that if someone else is doing rather well then I must be doing badly?
The answer is obvious. For the past 35 years the individual has obliterated the social. We became I, collaboration became competition, life became a zero-sum game. This is what neoliberal politics and economics encourages. In our schools, whatever else we are taught, we are instructed in the art of comparison. Obtaining 71% is no good if everyone else gets 93%. Without the failure of others, there can be nothing by which to measure “success”. Grades went up and up; so did rates of adolescent anxiety and depression.
It continues in the workplace, in our sharply tapered pyramid organisations where there isn’t much room at the top and a peer is someone who might end up peering down at you. It’s obvious in our media (our most powerful newspaper is also the most misanthropic), our television shows with their relentless winner-takes-all formats, our digital space and all the pernicious, do-me self-obsession it encourages.
It’s apparent in our politics, the almighty heave of yet another election in which firgun will no doubt be drowned out by blame and vilification, even though many of our MPs certainly deserve our admiration.
Go on, admit it, when was the last time you were truly moved to say the equivalent of firgun to a fellow? Me too … So let’s start now. Fill the streets, the pubs, the comments with your own #firgun plaudits. Don’t focus on the negative. Break out of that insidious social media bubble of negativity, snark and scorn. Let everyone know who the real heroes are in these turbulent times.