Early this morning I awoke from a troubling dream, and as is often my fashion, as soon as I awoke my mind started racing quickly and pondering. Only in contrast to my usual pondering, my brain raced to think of comedy bits about my life. In the course of my attempts to blog last night (where my laptop was not cooperative, with startup issues), I had pondered a variety of bits and wondered if there was any random opportunity to do any open-mic comedy bits. And, as is my fashion, I thought it would be worthwhile to comment on my own commitment to comedy as a part of my balanced strategy for mental health. Given the many ironies of my life, I figured it might be worthwhile to comment on some of the foundational elements of my complexity.
At my base I am a storytelling person. My interest in history is primarily narrative in nature, in that I want to make sense of life by understanding its narrative flow, its story. This same storytelling interest is present in my own writing interests, my love of long conversations over good food, and in the way I seek to make sense of the behavior of others by crafting narratives to make sense of their patterns of behavior. I am also generally interested in the narratives of others, finding them to be fascinating as well. Whether a narrative is true or not, it has power by shaping facts and putting them into a context that seeks to provide purpose and intentionality to the behavior of others. This gives facts interpretive value but also leads to bias in that false narratives give false explanations of behavior and lead to false conclusions that also have significant power.
Humor has often been warily observed and harshly treated for its ability to puncture the egos of overly proud people. Insiders are seldom people of great humor. If you look at political or military leaders, for example, in almost any country, you will note that few of them are people of great humor. Their (ghostwritten) speeches may be lofty, and are often vague and grandiose, but there is little humility or humor to be found in them. People from one group or party often construct narratives of the other, narratives that are harsh and bitter and that view others as inhuman in their cruelty and harshness. This discourages people from humor on a smaller scale except in the nasty form of ridicule to insult others, and not in the more gentle use of humor to poke fun of ourselves, to remind us that we are all creatures of complexity, tension, contradiction, and absurdity. Keeping an ironic distance from ourselves, seeing ourselves and others and our institutions from the outside as well as the inside, allows us to see the humor that is latent within our lives and situations.
After all, as I pondered tired and weary last night, I thought of many somewhat long bits about my own life that were entirely true, in aspects like family, religion, politics, travel, literature, love (or the lack thereof), and many other areas that were deeply amusing, mildly provocative, and entirely true. One does not need to make up stories to find humor. Often humor is present within the fabric of our lives and behavior. Comics are often deeply troubled and gloomy people, and it might be tempting to assume that being a funny man (or woman) is what leads that trouble on. In contrast, I see the causality in the other direction. Comedy is born from the need to reconcile ourselves to our tragic fate in a way that allows us to clearly see ourselves and our situation and others for what we are without causing us to despair from the sight. If a deeply tragic person can cheer themselves up enough to bravely face their existence, cheering up those of less gloomy temperaments is an easy task.
It is not by accident that fools were the wisest people in the courts of Medieval Europe. Dressed in motley and looking ridiculous, the court fool alone had the privilege to poke fun of the wealthy and powerful, given royal patronage to engage in commentary. Why was this allowed? Leaders then and now have always been surrounded by sycophants and courtiers who whisper flattering untruths about their wisdom and nasty backbiting about their rivals. A fool of comparatively lower social status with no personal political ambitions could tell the truth so long as it was phrased in a way that got a laugh, speaking forbidden truths on the knife’s edge with the license to amuse and to inform indirectly about that which could not be directly spoken. Every leader needs a fool in motley–someone who will tell the honest truth, but not make it hurt too much, except in the ribs as we laugh over those truths we cannot admit even to ourselves bluntly and directly. We ignore the wisdom of such fools at our peril.
Few would deny that our world seems (and is) overly gloomy and serious. And yet it is precisely for that reason that we must laugh. If our world and the nations in it are so fragile that they can be threatened by the behavior of ordinary humans in using too much water for toilets and manicured lawns, or by driving SUVs or enjoying the taste of fried chicken a bit too much or blogging about history and politics, then we need to find the humor in it. As a species our worst mistakes come when we take ourselves and our narrow worldviews and ideologies too seriously. Keeping a part of ourselves that has distance from our manmade ideas and philosophies gives us the ability to see ourselves (and others) in 3D rather than as cardboard villains in spaghetti westerns and stock characters in mediocre telenovelas. Our laughter should be directed at ourselves, lest we take ourselves too seriously and treat others with contempt and disrespect because we do not see them as rational beings worthy of the same dignity we demand for ourselves.
Since there are some truths that we are not equipped to handle straight on, let us cultivate a sense of humor for ourselves that allows us to laugh at life and to recognize those truths fleetingly in punch lines and in bits and stories about the lives of people we recognize as folks much like ourselves. Looking at ourselves in the reflection of the funhouse mirror, knowing there is exaggeration or distortion but that there is an essential core of truth that we can recognize even as we are amused is a healthy experience that we need to cultivate. We need funny people, and sometimes we need to be funny people to lighten the burden of this life in a fallen world, and to recognize that life is too important to be taken too seriously, and that we need to have our hearts lightened a little bit and often to do what must be done to make this world a better place with less suffering. It is those whose self-seriousness is oppressive that tend to oppress others, to drag them down to their own misery. Let us not be such people ourselves, or to let ourselves lose our humanity because of our human nature or human frailty, or that of others.
So, there you have insomnia’s silver lining, and that is the time and peace and quiet to ponder on the absurdity of life. In the story of Esther, recorded in scripture, the immensely self-serious king Ahasuerus of Persia had a sleepless night, and as his servants read to him the royal annals he found out that the righteous Benjaminite Mordacai had not been rewarded for his faithful service, and the immense self-pride of the equally self-serious Haman set in motion his own destruction and the salvation of the Jews from Haman’s planned genocide. A bit of self-mocking humor would have been good both for the arrogant king who turned a rejection of his leering and immodest request of his wife into a perceived threat to men in Persia everywhere as well as for the humorless grand vizir Haman whose inability to see himself as worthy of less than total adoration led to his fate as a condemned criminal impaled on a high gallows for threatening the life of Queen Esther. In our present world we have far too little humor in high places, and we suffer accordingly. To be truly great, we must be humble enough to laugh at ourselves so that we can see our faults and weaknesses and own up to them, so that we may overcome them. In that way, laughter at ourselves is the medicine that we need to take so that we do not become so poisoned by our self-seriousness that we cannot see the shards of truth in the humor and laughter of others.