I wrote and delivered this homily at my church - Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church - on July 1, 2018. For context, the service was dedicated to the celebration of humor.
Homily on Humor as Defense
So, this is no Joke. Humor is scared to me. It is holy. We get the gifts of funniness and amusement within us, between us, around us in abundance – for me that is soul touching, soul lifting, soul saving. Humor brings the fresh breeze of relief from tension, the delightful “ah ha” when truth is revealed in silliness, the cheek glowing tears of deep and mirthful connection. Humor is sacred. Humor is holy. And I am a disciple. As such, for years, I have tried to be the funniest guy in the room.
Like all things sacred, humor is illusive. We feel it, remember it, expect it, enjoy it. We can touch it – like a snow flake in the palm. But we can never hold onto it. Deconstruct a joke, and you may see the convergent elements of the joke-thing that caused you to spit milk into your friend’s face as you burst out in laughter – but by so doing, the joke itself – its heart, its soul, its funniness - vanishes. Dissection renders the sweet, frail, fleeting thing, dead on arrival.
I wrote my dissertation on the psychology of humor. I read all of the research on humor and wrote about it. That was interesting (although not always fun). But what I learned did nothing to unravel the mystery of humor. It left me cold when it came to understanding my yearning to be funny and to be amused. So, I am a devotee and practitioner of a silly and sacred art which I can neither explain or define. And I cannot leave alone.
I do know that in my life, humor plays at least three distinct rolls.
Connection, Offense, and Defense.
Connection: I love being funny, sharing funniness with other people, using humor to warm a relationship, make a difficult point, put people at ease.
In our marriage, spontaneous funniness helps to strengthen our love and attachment. And humor, gently delivered, helps sooth the inevitable hurts we inflict on each other. We couldn’t do without it. Mary and I laugh a lot. I feel freer in my whimsey and imagination with her than with anyone else in the world.
My darling wife, Mary, has a special gift – the auto giggle. Once begun the auto giggle is a perpetual motion laugh-o-matic. It requires only its own energy as fuel to continue. It is a majestic mirthful miracle. Last weekend we were settling in to nap. I was playing with Mary’s face as a baby plays with his momma’s face – cheeks and chin -nose and lips and eyes. And I was making wordy talky silly sounds in rhythm with my touch. And behold – there is was – the amazing Auto-giggle. Accompanied by her spluttering (because the only way you can talk in auto giggle is to splutter) “my husband is a very, seriously, silly man”.
In my work, I use humor to gently and compassionately show someone a part of themselves they have been working to avoid. Coming at such confrontations slightly askew – with a bit of whimsy or incongruence - softens the blow and provides amusement - so buffering the anger, shame, and guilt that people often feel when confronted.
With friends, I love rifting, punning, or finding the funny and absurd in the horrible news of the day. Such warmth and joy come from the agile if unhinged interplay of imaginations.
I enjoy joking with the people I encounter in my daily life – clerks, professionals, service people, folks on the elevator, bass players. When the moment is right, such light engagement brightens the day.
Now I am no saint of humor. Far from it. I make malicious jokes about people behind their backs. The smallish part of me recedes into judgment, criticism, and arrogance, and that shows up as mean and barbaric humor. I don’t like that part of me. But it is part of me. And I’m working to make it smaller.
I used to do it in front of their backs. I hurt people directly with my wicked and mean spirted sense of humor. Aging and years of therapy have quieted that mostly. Now my sensitivity to my own self-corrective feelings – empathy, guilt and shame - curb my expressions of mean humor.
I am afraid of people. I am afraid of you. Not that you are not all nice people – kind people – well intended people – Of course you are. Nope – it’s not you. I am simply afraid of people. And it’s not just me. Maybe you are too. Maybe we are – all of us – afraid of each other at least some of the time. I know that my fear may throw you… cause I may not look scared. Along the way I figured out how not to look afraid. – sometimes not even to consciously feel afraid. But I am…
Of course, I have stage fright right now standing here at the mic. But it is more than that. And I’m human and like all humans I have stranger wariness. But it is more than that too. My fear also comes from the abuses and traumas in my family growing up and all I have endured since. Maybe all that is true for you too. If so I am sorry and I am glad not to be alone.
For me, the fear aggregates in the dreadful, gut-wrenching expectation that, if you see me, really see me and know who I am, you will find me sorely wanting. You won’t like me, you will reject me, will run me out of town on a punchline. This primitive belief – bitter fruit of past wounds really –lingers in the child in me. And that child in me is sure that, if you see me, you will shun me and I will die. I will surely die. Or so it feels…. Now I’m not saying that I believe that as a 66-year-old mostly grown man. I don’t. But that old and awful fear has come up in me for years, and so across the many decades, I have built elaborate defenses to cope with that fear. Humor is among my defenses.
Making people laugh gets me high. The rush is proportionate to the number of people who get my joke and how much they laugh. With many people around, when a joke lands – when everyone in the room laughs – then I feel an incredible rush. This is not a purely mental experience – it is a body experience. I feel a blast of warm tingling energy through my body. It is a powerful mood-altering experience – drug like effectiveness. And when that happens – Poof – my fear disappears however briefly. Fewer people, smaller laughs, smaller high. But on the same dimension. It pays to be the funniest guy in the room.
So, joking works as a defense in my life - a defense against my once intolerable fear. This arrangement evolved unconsciously, as do all defenses, a fear, a person, a moment, a joke at a time. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of the joking. Of course, I was. I wasn’t aware that I was building a defense until recent years.
I got people to laugh. I felt high. It was a bit like people liked me and, for that moment, the fear eased. I felt safer. Armed with my sense of humor I could deflect, disarm, distract. And the high – the hit of making people laugh - lifted me up above my fear like a line of coke. I wanted to be and stay the funniest guy in the room.
I solved one problem but created another. I could feel safe. And I could have a sort of tenuous pseudo-connection with people through jokes. But I hid behind the joke – even became the joke. And pseudo connection is really no connection at all. I was safe but isolated. And I was only as good as my last joke.
Being addicted to using jokes to feel safe locked me out of learning to be brave and share my real self with people appropriately!!!
Now, on my journey of healing and growth, I am working to reveal my authentic self and to reduce my defensive joking. I am willing to feel my fear without benefit of my joking defense. And I am willing to disconfirm my fear by deepening authentic connection with others.
I am moving toward a day when the only jokes I make reveal my true self and help me to connect with other people as I really am. Even at the expense of being the funniest guy in the room. No Joke.