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Firgun: 'The emotion you probably never knew you have'

It’s an emotion that there is no word in English for and is often described as the opposite feeling to schadenfreude, writes Dr Keith Gaynor.

Dr Keith Gaynor Clinical psychologist

SOMETIMES I FEEL happy, sometime I feel sad. I never knew I felt firgun. Firgun is the Hebrew word for “the genuine, unselfish delight or pride in the accomplishment of another”.

It describes an emotion for which there is no word in English. It is often described as the opposite feeling to schadenfreude.

I came across firgun from the most unlikely of sources: English Rugby Captain Dylan Hartley. Hartley toasted his team mates’ success in making the British and Irish Lions Squad in a tweet which referenced firgun and my morning was lifted.

In an age which seems defined by bitterness and schadenfreude, where people are built up only to be torn down and where no one is good enough, beautiful enough, popular enough, it seems wonderful that an emotion exists, in each of us, that rows against that inky tide.

A sense of warmth

As soon as I heard the word, I had a moment of recognition. I have felt that. In fact, I feel it regularly: a sense of warmth that something good has happened for someone else. Whether it is babies being born, exams being completed, planning permission being achieved, we regularly feel great happiness for other people. We feel delighted.

I sometimes feel happiness for people I don’t even know or for events that have not even occurred yet. For a long time, I have really hoped something good happens for Nigel Owens, the rugby referee, and I’ve often wanted good things to happen for John Banville, the author.

It reminded me that our discussion is often shaped by the evolutionary narrative of survival of the fittest. I win/ you lose and that somehow that is the natural order of things. Except that this narrative is fundamentally untrue.

Human beings survived and thrived within evolution, not by being the quickest and fiercest but by our collective ability to work and communicate together. Our pro-social emotions of kindness, empathy, loyalty and firgun tied us together into couples and families, bands and tribes.

Humans would not have survived as lone predators, like great white sharks, nor would we have survived compared to great procreators, like insects. Pro-social emotions are what ensured our survival because within the natural world the individual human is weak while the group is strong.

Human beings are intrinsically “you-ward”

These emotions find their philosophical counterpart in the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. In his classic text “I and You”, he argued that human beings are intrinsically “you-ward”. Everyone is fundamentally oriented towards other people. Positively or negatively we are shaped by and melded to other people.

He discussed that human life finds its meaning in relationships. The relationship might be broken, neglected or overwhelmed by circumstance, but I am still oriented towards you. We are focused on other people as our source of happiness and unhappiness. We may not have spoken to someone for 50 years but there is still a small space in our mind turned towards them.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist and holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl focused on the fundamental importance of a sense of meaning in our ability to survive and cope. Frankl came to his philosophical conclusion that even the most absurd, painful and dehumanising situation has the potential for meaning.

But it is interesting to see what Frankl himself relied on through that period to give his life meaning: the image and memory of his wife Tilly. Even in a situation, where every aspect of humanity was stripped back, hope was found in his internalised relationship with the person he loved.

It’s a gentle and slow emotion

So having “discovered” this new emotion in myself, I’ve spent the last number of weeks just noticing when it crops up in my daily life. I have noticed it is gentle and slow but has a significant bodily response and a quirky side. The people for whom I feel firgun are diverse and sometimes inexplicable. I feel firgun for the people closest to me but also people I barely know or only fleetingly come across.

Most surprisingly perhaps, this has generated a feeling that probably isn’t technically firgun but rather old-fashioned gratitude, towards Dylan Hartley, for teaching me about this emotion I never knew I felt.

Dr Keith Gaynor is author of “Protecting Mental Health” (Veritas) and is a Senior Clinical Psychologist in the Outpatient Department of St John of God Hospital, Stillorgan.

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About the author:

Dr Keith Gaynor  / Clinical psychologist

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