Philosophical musings by Chic Hollis
Try it sometime, it’s hard to avoid laughing about something in life! The world is a very serious place, just ask your teacher, your pastor, or your boss. Nothing very funny happens to us personally. Most of us laugh at others: their predicaments, their foibles, their bad luck, their appearance, their stupidity, and their dreams. You name something, and we can find a reason to laugh at it – just as long as it isn’t something stupid or careless that we have done!
Most of us are serious about what we do, and we should be. Our parents spent a good portion of their adult lives trying to raise us to take our lives seriously: to study, to behave, to pay attention to authority, to avoid risks, drugs, and sex until we have left their home for good! Can anyone forget the “don’ts?” “Don’t scratch yourself in public, pick your nose, lick your fingers, spit on the floor in the house, and don’t pick up anything lying on the ground – it might be contaminated by germs. By all means, don’t ever leave the bathroom without washing your hands!”
So many “dos” and “don’ts” must be obeyed, because if they aren’t, someone might laugh at us. And no human wants to be laughed at. That is the biggest insult we encounter in our lives. At all costs we must avoid being the brunt of a joke, a clown, a wise guy, and the social freak whom people love to ridicule. Since everyone laughs at other people’s mistakes, we must be constantly alert to avoid making the slightest one. “To err is human,” but not in public. Someone is bound to laugh at you or make fun of the mistake you made. “To forgive is divine” assigns the tolerant, merciful role to God. Who ever heard the Divine laugh out loud or make any other utterance?
Life’s mostly a bearable tragedy. According to Dante the Divine Comedy begins after we die. The funniest hours I ever experienced were at two funerals for family members whose lives we could finally laugh about. The most serious moments were my four weddings and all the other weddings I attended wishing the newlyweds happiness and a mistake-free life together. Ha Ha! A marriage in most cases is the first mistake a couple makes together! At least in our family.
Paranoids, (bless them), are always trying to save face. They make the funniest spectacles! Only masochists can take life meekly as it should be taken, weathering all the abuse that most of us can hardly withstand, while expecting more trouble tomorrow with a smile. Rich sadists have a tough time trying to find inhumane ways to take advantage of the masochistic general public while they themselves are persecuted by the liberal media. The liberals eventually run out of government money to persecute sadists. (You can’t raise taxes for every new entitlement!)
Unfortunately, the poor always appear ludicrous. (Remember laughing with your friends when you were kids about those filthy, homeless beggars we dodged in the streets who smelled so badly?) Rich folks who lived in the exclusive suburbs were respected, honored, and emulated. But when the rich were out of earshot, we jealous kids laughed the loudest at them.
Smiles and laughter are primitive facial expressions inherited from our animal ancestors. We bare our teeth like apes today as a pleasant warning for others to smile back or else. The hyenas taught us to laugh. But we don’t use their body language to celebrate a successful snatching of prey killed by lions. Most of the time we laugh to copy what the majority is doing even when we don’t understand the joke. Laughing with someone is politically correct, but laughing at someone is not, unless the people you are laughing with are laughing at some unfortunate outsider. Then the louder, the better.
Life is intense, sobering, and intimidating. What’s funny about having to earn a living doing menial work? Cleaning up in hospitals, changing diapers, scrubbing pans, and taking out the garbage while sorting out all that disposable junk and making sure that each dirty, sticky, smelly item is placed in the appropriate container? Or picking up what your dog left on the neighbor’s lawn? Ugh, gross! But far better than cleaning up stables and barns, I guess. Who wants to live downwind from a farm today and smell the pigs? Or near a food processing plant? Neither place is very funny when a foul smelling wind is blowing towards you.
Often we laugh on cue with the TV laugh tracks, not because we are amused and our funny bone has been tickled. Look at the faces of the people going to work on the bus and on the train, or driving to the office. These aren’t happy people laughing about their long commute, the traffic snarling accidents, or the insolent driver who just cut them off. Walk down a busy street in a large metropolis and see how many people are smiling at another pedestrian or laughing with a companion. Especially when it is raining or snowing. Pay your bridge toll during the rush hour and look at the toll taker to see if he or she is having any fun yet.
Laughter is the best medicine says the Reader’s Digest, but obviously the editor never used it to cure a patient. Laughter may be therapeutic in changing a gloomy mood in a silent waiting room, but there is scant evidence that it can heal a person’s physical illness. There are many places that laughter is verboten. Don’t try to joke about anything in an airport. The National Security people there are the most humorless of all. The pseudo-seriousness in governmental offices like that in the IRS and the INS intimidates the most jovial human.
Another place of false seriousness is the jury room. Most court cases are boring, redundant, and beyond the average “reasonable” person’s ability to concentrate. Trial lawyers are not funny, and comic relief in the jury room is rare. Although the jurisprudent finally got rid of the ill-fitting, ridiculous wigs, the judges still wear those traditional silly black gowns, and the jurors are expected to participate in the charade of handing out justice with a “straight face!”
Some people think that light laughter can be spontaneous like the gleeful chortle of a proud parent who is pleased with his toddler’s progress. Or the embarrassed giggle of a self-conscious, shy person who must address a group. The first kind of laughter is vocal evidence of parental approval which is used to fortify the child’s successful step in the right direction. This begins the child’s education that teaches him or her that crowd laughter can be supportive of our feelings about some subject or behavior. The second kind of laughter a child is introduced to is that used to ridicule him or her in school.
Much adult laughter is the usual reaction from an audience that chuckles at the speaker’s short-comings or his jokes. An incompetent speaker fears a laughing rebuke, but can’t avoid it. When laughter seems spontaneous, look around, because not everyone will be laughing. Those who sympathize with the situation or the behavior that causes the outbreak of hilarity are probably not amused. They may smile after the initial outbreak of boisterousness to exhibit support for the humorist, but they are doing so perfunctorily.
We have learned that laughter makes us feel “good.” However, it actually makes us feel “better” than someone else, someone we don’t know, of course, who is the butt of a joke or a victim of a near tragic experience. Consequently, it is politically correct to laugh only at certain times and under certain circumstances.
We can laugh as much as we like at the TV sitcom characters, stand-up comedians, and inebriated jokers at a party. They aren’t victims dealing with “real” problems. What happens to them are exaggerated anecdotes designed to make us laugh. We ignore their teasing and their sarcastic put-downs. Humor must relieve tension, not add to it.
We laugh when we relax. With laying down our troublesome burdens and changing our tedious routines comes a lightness of spirit, a playfulness, an escape from the seriousness that we were taught was “reality.” If something unforseen happens to someone else when we are present, we laugh at the improbable. If something happens that was foreseen, then we laugh at the poor victim’s failure to escape the inevitable.
The best time to laugh is when we have shut down our subjective interpretation of reality and adopted a more distanced, objective viewpoint. Our life becomes more tolerable when we compare it to the aggravation suffered by others, who are worse off than we seem to be. Feeling better about ourselves releases us from the grasp of the druggery of our lives. Then we can freely laugh about the overly serious conventional behavior of others facing similar traumatic events.
We smile and sometimes laugh at our favorite comic book characters. No one is more pathetic than the round-headed kid, Charlie Brown. He will never win a baseball game nor place kick a football that Lucy holds for him. That’s life for most of us. So we smile about his pitiable athletic capability. Like pathetic Charlie Brown none of the pitchers who participated in the final game of a 7 game World Series were laughing, smiling, kidding, or joking around on the mound. Not until the Series was all over! Then the victorious team laughed, smiled, and felt very “good” about themselves because they were indeed “better.”
So, keep looking for the refreshing humor of Charlie Chaplin’s innocent Tramp. His life was sad, but he always found how to survive and entertain us by appearing to be worse off than we were. His preposterous problems made our challenges seem remote and less serious. We laughed from our safe vantage point among friends and strangers in a dark movie theater. Our life was less burdensome to us, at least for a few hours, or maybe the rest of the week-end.
Laughter is all about how we choose to look at things in our life. Go out and find someone who appears to be worse off than you, and smile gratefully, shaking your head sympathetically. You’ll feel much better, I’m sure. By honestly observing ourselves objectively in a full length mirror, many of us might recognize our great potential for making compassionate people laugh heartily.