Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Re-Post On Humor In Light of the Attack on the Paris Terrorist Attack

The attackers in Paris knew what they were doing. They sensed the power of humor and attacked what was truly a threat to them. Their attack is terrible, sad, a tragedy. But there is something revelatory in it.  Evil's attack on the smallest of things, reveals its own weakness, and the power latent in what was attacked. Here are some thoughts I had on the subject of humor a while back, that came back to my mind after the attack:

On top of my full-time job as a youth minister, I also work part-time as a values teacher at a private school. It is almost like teaching grade-school and intermediate-level religious ethical philosophy. It is pretty cool. I get to teach whatever I want, however I want and there are not grades. I know, I know it should be illegal to have this much fun working. This month I'm teaching the value of humor. Here is a rundown on my rather informal lesson plan, note all of this is adjusted for grade levels:

Humor in part helps us learn vulnerability. You cannot force anyone to laugh at a joke. Every time you tell one you 'put yourself out there' and if it doesn't evoke laughter, it is a little embarrassing. Laughing itself feels very vulnerable. The ultimate vulnerability is when  you enter into a relationship where friendly ribbing is the norm. Those kinds of relationships can be very rewarding and joyful, but they do indeed put you in a vulnerable place. The key is to have the vulnerability work both ways. The various ways humor relates to vulnerability, the danger this creates, and how to navigate this in relationships should be explored.

Humor is all about incongruence. A dwarf walks into a bar with an elephant, a monkey smokes a cigarette, God and the devil have a conversation. It is about holding two seemingly at odds realities in creative tension. But some philosophers have suggested behind the multitudinous funny incongruences there is some fundamental incongruence that is being expressed. Freud thought it was the incongruence between the id and superego. Others have suggested an incongruence between the way the world is and the way it should be, between the spirit of man and his' embodied state, and so on. We will talk about incongruity, what the fundamental incongruity might be, and why it matters.

Humor is to my mind all about transcendence. Humor really is a kind of magic. Only a human being can tell a joke, and start a chain of events that can bring down an empire. Humor evokes joy in another. It is a gift we give to each other. But just like we think of magic as something that can be misused, so can humor. I think humor is all about joy. It is corrupted if it becomes only about MY joy. If I am using humor parasitically, bringing myself joy at the expense of the joy of another, I violate it's central nature and corrupt it. As with everything, I see good as primary, and evil as derivative. Evil is not the absence, but the corruption, of the good.

Humor is all about human connection. We feel a kind of spiritual communion with those we lead into laughter, as we feel communion with those we laugh with. It is a way of transcending isolation.

Humor can be redemptive. In a moment a well-timed joke can overcome, if only for a moment, even the most terrible grief. I think here about the end scene of STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Humor can be a tool to fight oppression, and to spread truth. One way to destroy evil is to laugh at it. Corollary thought: I've often thought of Christ as God's joke on the world.

Humor creates a counter-world of joy. It turns the world upside down. The president is brought low as the butt of the homeless man's joke. We can excuse a lot of actions and words we might otherwise find morally offensive if we truly believe it was 'just a joke'. The world of the serious is made of little importance. The world of the silly is brought high to the utmost importance. And if someone can't step into this counter-world, we count them as people who are missing out. Life without humor seems meaningless. Moreover, it seems hardly any kind of life at all.

Humor helps us detach from that which is unimportant. If we take ourselves too seriously, we are setting ourselves up for undo and unnecessary grief and suffering. The ego is softened in laughter. We step outside of ourselves, our very concept of 'self', of who we are, can be broadened if we reflect on the reality of laughter.

The detachment we feel through laughter can lead to compassion, and tolerance. One of the themes of Jonah is that all people are equally stupid and silly, and that God loves us in our stupidity and silliness. If we learn to not take ourselves too seriously, we can see ourselves as more on the level of other people. Less ego, more love.

Humor's power to inspire, move, to get people to take life less seriously, is unconsciously recognized and to some degree feared by society in general. Society has a vested interest in us taking some things seriously. It also has a vested interest in not letting people's sense of humor lead them to anarchy. And, as we said, humor is a power that can be corrupted. So society for reasons both honest and dishonest compartmentalizes the humorous. It pays certain people to be funny men. It gives them a stage and a time and place. We make it clear that there are times when humor is not appropriate. This is similar to what we do with religion: we institutionalize it to leash it's power.

There is a possible cosmic image here. The non-coercive nature of evoking laughter can be looked at as a model for God's relationship with the universe. God doesn't create by coercive power, but by persuasive influence. Making someone laugh is a power, as we've said. But it is a non-coercive power. God's act of creation may be very much like my creation of laughter in you.

So these are some of my thoughts on humor. They will be guiding my discussions over the next month. I highly recommend Peter Berger's REDEEMING LAUGHTER, on this subject.

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