DON’T LAUGH IT OFF WHEN HUMOR HURTS, WHEN HUMOR HEALS ??T LAUGH IT OFF WHEN HUMOR HURTS, WHEN HUMOR HEALS ... children have been made miserable, day after day, ... when the phone rang. It
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LIGHTER MINDSDONT LAUGH IT OFFWHEN HUMOR HURTS,WHEN HUMOR HEALSBy Elouise M. BellHumor heals because it reminds us always to look around and see thatwere not the only ones here. It provides us with release from our tensedpostures and pleasure at the unexpected distortions of our lives.WEVE HEARD QUITE a lot in recentyears about the healing properties of humorfrom Norman Cousins and his literary cous-ins. Like all powerful medicines, humor canhave negative side-effects. Counselors needto be alert to these side-effects. So well talkabout when humor hurts, when it heals, andhow we might avail ourselves and others ofits curative properties.ELOUISE M. BELL is a professor of English atBrigham Young University. This address was de-livered to the annual conference of TheAssociation of Mormon Counselors and Psycho-therapists, 4 April 1991, in Salt Lake City.There are many definitions of humor. Ar-istotle says that "humor is the pleasurabledistortion of what is expected." By torquingyour body as one does in stretching exer-cises, you decompress the spine. By distort-ing your body from its expected andcustomary posture, you release accumulatedtension and help yourself feel better. Humorworks a bit like that. Humor could be enor-mously healing in the Mormon culture if wewould, first, admit how much tension accu-mulates, and second, allow ourselves to dis-tort expectations once in a while.We want to discover more about humor,to nail down the statistics. When it heals.And when it hurts. Because it does hurt, aswe all know. So lets look at its negativeside-effects.WHEN HUMOR HURTSWHEN does humor hurt? For one,humor hurts when it is malignant teasing.What is malignant teasing? Its deliberatelypainful mockery that hides its cowards facebehind the mask of the Joker. In theAnglo-American culture, almost any vice isexcusable--stinginess, alcoholism, promis-cuity-if its played as a joke. Think howmuch mileage, how many laughs, JackBenny, Phil Harris, and Dean Martin, amongothers, got out of the aforementioned vices.The one fault we dont excuse is lack of asense of humor. So one can be cruel to an-other, mocking and teasing, if its done in thename of joking, kidding. And if the victimshould speak up and object, voila--our oldfriend, The Guilt of the Victim: "Whats thematter? Cant you take a joke?" Countlesschildren have been made miserable, day afterday, by such brainless and cruel "teasing" bysiblings and by adults who should knowbetter. I once intervened when my father wasteasing my nephew. My father growled, "Hesgot to learn to take a joke!" The child wasfour years old. I tried to explain to my fatherthat the ability to take a joke requires a littlemore than four years to develop.In some people, that ability to take a jokeis minimal at best. Theres a wonderful bookand film called Bang the Drum Slowly. Thesetting is a national baseball team, and themain characters are the pitcher and thecatcher. The pitcher is bright, the catcher isdull-normal, as I believe the counseling pro-fession calls it. Maybe just dull. The catcheris the butt of every joke the baseball playerscan think of. The team calls this kind of hardteasing "ragging." And they rag the catchermercilessly--until they learn he has a termi-nal disease. Then their natural decency re-emerges, and they show him kindnessinstead of cruelty. At books end, the pitchervisits his friends grave, and as he walks away,he reflects, with what I consider one of thegreat closing lines in bookdom: "From hereon out, I rag nobody." He had learned aboutthe dangers of malignant humor, for thosewho dish it out as well as for those forced toswallow it.Okay, what about this? You have an officemate who has told you repeatedly what apoor sense of direction she has. She is, asHelen Cannon calls herself, "a geographicaldyslexic." She regales you with funny storiesof getting lost in her own neighborhood.One day, she is late for an appointment, andSEPTEMBER 1992PAGE 49when she arrives, you quip, "Whats the mat-ter: couldnt you find the freeway exit?" Andshe blows up! Is she neurotic? Maybe then,who aint? If you want the point clarified,read Cyrano de Bergerac, now also in a finefilm production. Cyrano makes forty jokesabout his own nose, but floors the cadet whomentions the word to him: "For I say thesethings lightly enough about myself, but woeunto him who says them of me." Now some-time psychologists ought to figure out thepsychology of that attitude, which we allhave to a greater or lesser degree. Just whydo we object to others making fun of thesame flaws we do? We know the facts--thatwe have a big nose or a poor sense of direc-tion. So why should we take offense whenanother says what we have said ourselves,and joked about, so often? I think it has todo with the principle of invasion. For me toshow you part of myself is one thing; for youto notice and comment uninvited is another.I may wave to you out of my living roomwindow as you pass by, but if you peer in mywindow uninvited and later tell me whatyou saw, I am apt to feel that my privacy hasbeen invaded and my inner sanctum dese-crated.My brother discovered this truth the hardway. In the middle of one hot night in theirhome in Washington, D.C., he and his wifewere awakened from a sound sleep by a greatclap of thunder. A heavy storm was beatingdown. "You close the windows." he yelled tohis wife; "Ill bring in the lawn furniture."And he dashed to the back yard, not reallythinking about the fact that he: had gone tobed in the buff. Outside, he ran around haul-ing in the furniture, but as he tried to get thegiant lawn umbrella furled, the windwhipped around and practically had himairborne. He struggled around in the backyard for some minutes, naked as a newborn,in the middle of thunder and lightning, butat last got the umbrella down and everythingsecured. He had just dropped back into bedwhen the phone rang. It was his neighborand golf buddy. "Just wanted, to let MaryPoppins know we loved the show!"As therapists, you are invited into ourlives. In fact, youre invited further in thanjust about anyone else. But youre treadingon tender, if not sacred, ground. Take yourshoes off. Be respectful. And be very carefulabout laughing. The client who can laughheartily at his own foibles can be deeply,primally wounded--in your jargon, his Lit-tie Boy can be wounded--if you laugh atthose same foibles.So humor can hurt when itg malignant,and humor can hurt when its invasive.HOW HUMOR HEALSWE all realize that humor heals. Butjust how does it work? Lets think about thatquestion a bit.Freud says that "jokes are the aggressiverelease of pent-up frustrations." Frustrationis of epidemic proportions in our culture. Ifwe were to give each other greater permis-sion to acknowledge that fact, and then add tothat permission to release those frustrationsthrough humor, our mental and emotionalhealth might improve dramatically andcounselors wouldnt be working sixty- andseventy-hour weeks.One of the rare Mormons treasured for hishumor was J. Golden Kimball. Everyoneknows and cherishes some J. Golden story.Like this one:Preaching at the funeral of Rudger Dixonin Idaho, J. Golden waxed eloquent aboutwhat a stalwart the deceased was, how Zionwould never be the same without BrotherDixon, how even as they were gathered, thedeceased was being welcomed into the com-pany of the departed saints in the celestialkingdom."Brothers and Sisters," he croaked,"Brother Dixon is even now in the presenceof Brother Brigham and Brother Joseph 2Then he looked into the audience andsaw the gnnning face of Rudger Dixon.J. Golden glared over at the bishop on thestand and rasped, "Bishop, just who the hellis dead here, anyway?"Now, in the spirit of research, lets look atthat story. Its not especially funny, you know.But its told and retold in Mormon Country,generation after generation. Why? For atleast three reasons that could be of interest toa Mormon psychotherapist or counselor.First, death is fearful to most of us. Weview death with awe, mystery, dread. Wehave, despite ourselves, a powerful in-stinctual drive tensed always to resist death.Joking about death momentarily releases thatcoiled resistance and eases the tension.Second, the key word in this story is hell.Watching our language, for a good many ofus, produces a certain tension. J. Goldens useof that taboo word, hell, in that reverentsetting releases a few degrees of tension in us,and thereby heals us a tad.Third, maintaining a reverent, respectfulposture toward the leaders of the Church--toward anyone or any object, for that mat-ter--produces a certain emotional andspiritual compression, just as standing erectproduces a spinal compression. When J.Golden comes out with that taboo word, hell,he gives us all a chance to pleasurably distortour customary expectations and posture to-ward authority--and that is mightily restor-ative and healing.On another occasion, one member of theQuorum of the Twelve encountered the agedJ. Golden on the streets of Salt Lake Cit>"Good morning, Elder Kimball," theapostle said. "How is your health today?""Wal, not too bad for an old man," J.Golden shrilled. "Truth of the matter is--Icant pee. But thats all right: the president ofthe Church cant pee either!"That story is healing because it releases us,verbally and briefly, from two expectations. Itgives us permission to say, or at least hear, themildly taboo word, pee, and to acknowledgethat the president of the Church actuallypees--o r has trouble peeing.Now if those stories offend you, Im sorry.Im sorry in the same way a colleague of minewas sorry when a student she had had inclass .just folded up and dropped out of ev-erything, including the university. When thedean informed her that this young man hadwithdrawn, my friend said, "Oh, Im sorry!~The dean replied, "Thats all right; it wasntyour fault." My friend explained that shehadnt assumed it was; she was just sad thatthe boy had left school. So in that sense, Imsorry if youre offended, but I would cite twohigher authorities on the issue. To somelong-faced followers who were offendedwhen he was joking and teasing with someyoung men, Joseph Smith explained that ahunters bow must not stay tightly strung allthe time, or else it wouldnt be in shape whenit was needed.My second authority is Levi Edgar Young,a member of the Twelve some time back. Hedeclared that the eleventh commandmenthad been revealed to him.Some skeptic queried him, saying, "ElderYoung, I understand that you have pro-claimed an eleventh commandment, andthat it says, Thou shalt not take thyself tooseriously. Is that correct?""Nossir!" replied Elder Young. "That is notcorrect. The correct wording is: ~Thou shaltnot take thyself too damn seriously!"Some Saints fear that if we give permis-sion to tell irreverent stories, we will endan-ger the testimonies of the faithful, or theunfaithful, or someone, surely someone. ButI suggest that when the time comes that wegive permission in our culture for morehumor directed at ourselves, at that day wewill have stronger testimonies in every quar-ter. The principle is that the tree which doesnot bend shall break. The tension which isnot released can eventually snap the spine,the spirit, and perhaps the soul.PAGE 50 SEPTEMBER 1992SPEAKING THE WORDYOU understand the pnnciple of the~vo~d. It is the power of the word that tri-umphs in dysfunctional families, triumphsover the denial, the lies, the secrets, and thesilence. The first speaking of the word can bepainful, its true: "Dads an alcoholic"; "Bud isgay"; "Moms is a shop-lifter"; "Sister had anabortion." (Not all in the same year, wehope.) Saying those things is incredibly pain-ful at first. And also enormously healing.Such is the power of the word.I have a friend who recently began toretrieve memories of incredible: incestuousabuse during her childhood. I wont belaborthe horrors she is going through as she facesthe emergence of these memories. Her expe-rience in that respect is a classic textbookcase. What is not typical is her way of dealingwith the pain. She has written twelve orfifteen limericks, each of them incrediblygraphic, some of them remarkably bawd> allof them very good verse, all of them humor-ous--blackly humorous, to be sure, fiercelysatiric in the style of Jonathan Swift--and asa group, these limericks are enormously ther-apeutic, enormously healing, both to the au-thor and to other incest survivors with whomshe has shared them.Heres the principle: expressing our painin language is healing. And the witty expres-sion of pain is additionally therapeutic. TheEnglish poet Robert Graves has a poem enti-tled "The Travelers Curse after Misdirection."The traveler in this poem has been givenwrong directions all day. His rage and frustra-tion are, by the end of the daB huge, toxic,possibly pathological. Perhaps you havebeen in his uncomfortable shoes. If so, youwill understand his feelings as he pro-nounces a curse on all those who gave himbungled directions:May they wander stage by stageOf the same vain pilgrimage:,Stumbling on, age after age,Night and day, mile after mile,At each and every step, a stile;At each and every stile withal,May they catch their feet and fall;At each and every fall they take,May a bone within them break;And may the bones that break withinNot be, for variations sake,Now rib, now thigh, now arm, nowshin,But always, without fail,THE NECK.Clearly, the emotions of rage and frustrationthat prompted that poem have been mightilypurged with its creation. Even ~eading it aloudis cathartic, therapeutic. Try it sometime.Raphael Sabatini begins his great adven-ture book, Sca~amouche, with this wonderfulopening line: "He was born with the gift oflaughter, and a sense that the world wasmad." (My father quoted that line to mefrequently when I was a child. It may be hisbest legacy to me.) The line expresses a verytherapeutic philosophy. The worlds madnesscauses us great misery and pain. Awarenessof the insanity and the ability to laugh at theinsanity combine to make one of the feweffective balms. Another word for that balmis perspective. As I page through the oft-quoted DSM-III (Diagnostical Statistical Man-ual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition), it seemsto me that most disorders, at least those thatare not biochemical in origin, are malfunc-tions of perspective. The client lacks the per-spective to understand that a defensemechanism which may have been useful atage four is counter-productive at age fort>The narcissistically disturbed have perspec-tive problems, the hysterics have perspectiveproblems, the phobic, the pedophilic, theperpetually panicked. Well, pardon me forplaying doctor here. My point is that per-spective is a symptom of good health, andthat humor helps us keep things in perspec-tive.Sometimes, humor works in rather dra-matic ways. A therapist of my acquaintanceonce, as a young student in training, wasassigned to work in a state hospital with achronic patient. You know the kind theyassign the apprentices--theyre not going toget better; theyre not going to get worse, sowhat harm can the beginner do? Well, myfriend was working with this man who hadbeen institutionalized for years. She had hadseveral lucid conversations with the man,when he suddenly went into a series of grot-esque and bi7arre facial tics and incoherentvocal sounds. My friend looked at him andlaughed in his face. The patient stoppedshort. No one had ever laughed at his gigbefore. He pulled himself together and neveragain went into the routine as long as myfriend worked with him. Her spontaneouslaugh had provided him with some perspec-tive, which, in this case at least, proved ben-eficial.Humor heals, then, by reminding us ofperspective. And perspective need not be apassionless detachment. One can have pas-sion and perspective. One can, for example,sincerely believe that the best things in lifeare chocolate and have perspective enough tosee the humor in that belief. One can bepassionate about music, and also see itsfunny side, in the manner of P D. Q. Bach ormy idol, Anna Russell. One can even have afirm conviction that ones church is the onlydivinely ordained church on earth--a nd stillhave perspective enough to realize that mostof the world does not share that conviction,and that there is some considerable irony insuch a conviction. One could value the storyof the good deaconess Jones, who after aneasy and blessed death, was being shownaround heaven by St. Peter. They passed alovely meadow with a stream runningthrough, and saw many folks who were sing-ing and shouting praises, baptizing in thestream, and enjoying a great picnic lunch."The Baptist saims," explained St. Peter, andj
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