NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Humor” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Humor: The world laughs
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Long ago, when I was a technical writer at Digital Equipment Corporation, I carpooled to work with my editor. At one point in our many conversations, we were talking about the possibility of nuclear war, and I cracked a joke. He turned to me and said, gravely, “You can’t joke about nuclear war.” I thought for a moment, then responded, “What else can we do about it?”
When I as a kid, Reader’s Digest had a humor column called “Laughter, the Best Medicine,” and it turns out they got that right. Humor heals. Laughter relaxes muscles, decreases stress hormones, boosts the immune system, releases endorphins, improves blood flow, eases anxiety, helps diffuse conflict, and increases connection between people. Smiling, even when you don’t really feel like doing it, subtly elevates mood. Norman Cousins, former Saturday Review editor-in-chief, claimed that watching old Marx Brothers comedies helped cure him of a potentially fatal spinal disorder.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone” seems to have more than a grain of truth. A recent British Medical Journal study established that a good mood is contagious out to at least three degrees of separation. And the effects are substantial. First-degree connections showed a 25% increase in measures of happiness, second-degree connections 10%, and even third-degree connections (friends of friends of friends) derived a 5.6% happiness increase. (Sadness, on the other hand, showed only a limited effect on the mood of social circles.)
Like Gloucester poet Charles Olson, “I have had to learn the simplest things last,” and one of them was humor. Early in my second year of college, I began to see that ironic comments that passed for humor among my high school friends didn’t always travel well. I set out to discover what else made people laugh.
I started with one joke, learning by trial and error how best to tell it. Next I strung several jokes together into a narrative. I experimented with short jokes, long jokes, stupid jokes, groaners. A personal triumph was inventing my own shaggy dog story, based on a repetitive series of threatening letters I’d received from the subscription department of New Times magazine.
With jokes somewhat under my belt, I played with punning, double-entendres, repetition, timing, incongruity. I learned to imitate foreign accents and to invent personae to speak in them. I tried visual humor, from making bizarre faces to head-slapping gestures.
As my humor repertoire expanded, I also noticed how paying attention to audience increased the potential for laughter and connection. I found that making up words with girlfriends gave us a private language, the sillier the better. On a trip to Italy, I discovered that putting the wrong diminutive ending on a word could make almost any Italian laugh. Children giggled when I inserted made-up words in the middle of sentences. When I worked in construction, inserting expletives inside other words (“Unbef**kinglievable!”) helped me become one of the guys. Sometimes the quest for what tickled someone’s funny bone was daunting. Finding out how to make one friend laugh (pratfalls and penis jokes) took 5 years! All this informal study of humor did not make me a comedian, but it did help me recognize that there is a language of humor, and that each of us speaks our own dialect.
Sharing someone’s language of humor provides another means of connection and, sometimes, is a key to forging a deep alliance. I worked for several years with a young man who had been unwilling to participate in therapy with previous therapists. He felt that nobody “got” him. Going with his humor, often derisive and usually aimed at me, was pivotal to allying with him. He insulted my “big nose,” mocked me for my advanced age and decrepitude, and tested my patience with his sometimes relentless punning. I learned to judge his mood by the intensity of his apparent hostility. Over time, that hostility evolved into an extended private language of humor between us, and eventually to his sharing both his difficulties and his triumphs.
In my professional life, humor is almost always present. Even in the midst of frustration, anger, betrayal, and grief, sessions with clients are sprinkled with irony, wit, and wordplay. I watch for hints of humor and send out gentle forays when humor might help to lighten a load or provide broader perspective. Paraphrasing Homer Simpson, I might observe, “That would probably seem really funny if it was happening to someone else.”
I encourage clients to use humor outside therapy to cope with even the most trying situations. I have worked with several rebellious young clients who hated writing for school because they knew an obedient attitude was expected. We figured out ways to use irony and sarcasm to redirect their anger. “You mean I should write something like ‘School is great. I love school’?” “Exactly. But write it with a sarcastic tone. Your teacher probably won’t get that you mean the opposite of what you’re saying, but you’ll know.” Another boy I worked with used humor to repel bullies. When they taunted him, he acted as if what they were saying made his day, or he responded with non sequiturs. Although they twirled their fingers around their ears in the gesture indicating “this guy is nuts,” they left him alone.
Humor can illuminate the patterns that embroil us and rescue us from endless repetition of them. As they describe their frustration with apparently incorrigible spouses, children, parents, friends, I often hear clients say, “I told him [or her] a thousand times…” I sometimes ask, “What would you think if you saw that in a TV sit-com?” Seeing our patterns from the perspective of a sit-com audience deflates their severity: “There we go again, playing out another episode of I Love Lucy.” When the 1,001st time comes around, we free ourselves to do something different so that something new can occur.
“Were it not for my little jokes,” Abraham Lincoln once commented, “I could not bear the burdens of this office.” Perhaps we can learn by example from the man who shepherded us through such horrific times and, even when our circumstances seem most dire, see in them, as Lincoln did, the fundamental humor of our human condition.