Friday, July 6, 2018

The Only Joking Defense

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.

And Defense:

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.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Just Right

Remember Goldilocks? She wandered around in the forest looking for someplace safe. Someplace safe. She stumbled onto the house of the three Bears - Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. There she found hope of safety and comfort. There were chairs for sitting, porridge for eating, and beds for sleeping.

First she tried out the bowls of porridge. Papa Bear's porridge too hot and Mama Bear's porridge to cold, but Baby Bear's porridge was just right. Goldilocks ate that porridge all up. Next she wanted to sit down. Papa Bear's chair was too hard and Mama Bear's chair was too soft. Finally she sat in Baby Bear's chair and it was just right. So she sat there until the chair broke. Then the she decided she wanted a nap so she went looking for the bed. Papa Bear's bed was too high at the head for her. Mama Bear's bed was too high at the foot for her. Last she tried Baby Bear's bed and it was not too high at the head or at the foot, but just right. She fell asleep.

By and by the Bear Family returned home and discovered their home disturbed, food eaten, and furniture broken. When they found Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear's bed, they startled her awake and she ran away home.

At one level, the story is a morality play. The moral is, don't mess around with other people's stuff without permission. But I think there is another message too.

Active sex addicts live in extremes. Too hot, too hard, too cold, too soft. Extremes. When acting out addicts are too soft on themselves - too easy on themselves. They live outside of their values. They feel they can get away with anything - that they are Masters of the Universe. When sex addicts are in the shame phase of the cycle they are too hard on themselves. They feel empty, worthless. They burn themselves with their shame brained thoughts and make themselves sit on too hard chairs. Too soft or too hard with no middle ground. No place is safe. That's what active sex addicts do.

With recovery comes balance. Neither to hot nor too cold, but just right. Neither too soft or too hard, but just right. Goldilocks can be nourished by Baby Bear's just right porridge. She can feel comfortable is Baby Bear's just right chair. She can rest easy and feel safe in Baby Bear's just right bed - safe enough to sleep. Balance, nourishment, comfort, and safety - good, healthy goals for otherwise too intense recovering addicts. Goldilocks found the rainbow of possibility between black and white, hot and cold, soft and hard.

One final thought: Papa Bear's bed was too high at the head for Goldilocks. It was unlevel. Mama Bear's bed was too high at the foot for Goldilocks. It too was unlevel. But Baby Bear's bed was perfectly level and just right. She could only be comfortable when she was on the level. Recovering people too can only be comfortable when they are on the level.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Gaslighting and Reality

Imagine that you got up one morning and everything was different. Suppose that your life partner asked you why you were wearing a blue shirt when you knew you were wearing a white shirt and seemed puzzled when you insisted that you saw it as white. Suppose you got to work and your telephone extension had been changed from 4432 to 4435 but everyone insisted that it had always been 4435. Imagine what you would begin to think if you pointed out a new piece of art in your favorite restaurant only to be told by your lunch partner that it had always hung just where it was. Imagine that you began to notice that you experienced a reality slightly but significantly different from the reality other people experienced. What if these sorts of oddities began happening everyday - day in and day out? Other people perceived, understood, and remembered a world that was different from the world you understood. And now suppose that this condition persisted, not just for days or but for years.

What do you think would begin to happen inside of you? You might get angry with everyone in the world because they saw the world differently from you - you might continue to insist that you are right. But after a while your anger would probably fade. If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think, "How likely is it that I alone think my shirt is white, my phone number is 4432, and the painting is new? If everyone I trust thinks the world is different from the way I think the world is, there must be something wrong with me" If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think that it was you. Your anger and frustration would begin to shift and include anxiety or even fear, depression, confusion, and self-doubt. If you have a shred of rationality, you would wonder if you might be going crazy.

Watch a baby test the world and learn about her reality detection devices. The baby reaches out her hand, picks up the pretty bobble, raises it over her head, and lets it fall back to the surface. She giggles with glee. She is delighted by her reliable and consistent understanding of the way gravity works in the universe. She couldn't tell you that. But inside, she knows what she is learning. She is learning that reality is consistent and that her senses are reliable devices for detecting reality. Her self-esteem is building. She is thinking (in baby think), "I can, I can, I can..."

Surprise changes in reality are amusing in small, brief doses. This is why we like jokes and are excited by thunder. When reality briefly defies our expectations, we get a rush from the novelty and then quickly restore ourselves to reality. But the story is different if reality is altered in permanent ways. It is a different story if those we trust to help us remain in touch with reality tell us that we are not in touch with reality . We begin to feel odd. "I see dead people".

We check out reality with other people all the time. It is part of how we keep our reality detection devices properly tuned. "Do you see what I see? Is it me or is that ladies hair on fire?" Our self-esteem suffers and our trust in ourselves erodes if our reality detection devices seem unreliable. In the end, we may think we are crazy. This is an essential component of bone fide Brainwashing. If you have complete control over another person and you make reality unpredictable, they have to rely on you for reality. "Today is Tuesday. So is Tomorrow. "The organizing fabric of reality as derived from sensory and perception begins to deteriorate if that reality is not validated by those around us. This is a technique for making other people crazy.

This sort of reality distortion is a principal plot device in the play and movie, Gaslight. A man marries a naive young woman and sets out to drive her crazy so that he can steal her very valuable jewels. Each time he leaves the house the gas lights dim and she hears footsteps on the floor above (he sneaks back in by a secret stairway, dims the light, and walks the floor.) No one else notices and he insists that he was away. She begins to think she is crazy. The more the victim of Gaslighting trusts the person who is bending reality, the more the victim suffers.

Some people claim that the partner of someone who is having an affair always knows. I doubt that. But I do think that partners often know that something is amiss - if they pay attention to their intuition. And that holds for more than affairs. I think most people detect subtle shifts in the conduct and emotion and mood - the aspect if you will - of their partners. When we detect shifts, we check it out by asking questions. Usually, if our intuition is working and our friends are truthful, they validate our intuition.

Sex addicts lie to keep their secret lives secret. They lie by omission and commission. They lie to lots of people. Most especially, they lie to their partners. They lie to cover up. They lie when their partners ask questions and express suspicion and doubt. Addicts gaslight their partners. This is one of the wounds that partners suffer. It is one of the wounds that partners must heal.

When addicts get into recovery they are often surprised by the intensity of their partners reactions. But reflect on the little thought experiment that began this essay. When you deceived your partner, you caused her or him to call reality into question. You damaged their relationship with reality. Because your partner trusted you - trusted that you would not distort reality - your partner may have felt quite crazy. There is relief for partners when they know the truth - they begin to know that they are not crazy and so can begin to restore their own relationship with reality. But trust does not restore quickly.

Return to your imagination and think what you would think and feel if your partner and coworkers and friends admitted that they had been deliberately distorting reality to keep secrets and make you crazy. Imagine that they had been doing that for years. Even if those people disclosed their acts, expressed their remorse, and promised never to do that again, how long would it take you to again trust them to validate your reality?

Friday, January 11, 2008

“All Guys Do It”

Sex addicts rationalize. One common rationalization is the "Illusion of Normality" rationalization or the “All Guys Do It” defense. Men call on this argument when they have been discovered using pornography, secretly masturbating, going to those venues we euphemistically call “adult entertainment”, flirting inappropriately, or objectifying women. They say to their partners, “All guys do this, it's no big deal, it doesn't mean anything, it has nothing to do with how I feel about you.” They mean, 'Please don't make me give this up, I need it too much.”

Let's take the “All Guys Do It” defense at face value for a moment. In a certain sense, it is true at its core. It is true in the same way that it is true that all guys have penises. Men (and women) have sexual feelings and they notice other people who they find sexually attractive. All guys do that. Most people have sexual thoughts about people they encounter even when acting on those thoughts would, for one reason or another, be unwise. All guys do that too. The majority of sexually mature males (in our culture at least) masturbate. Most guys do that. Masturbation is an important part of how young people learn about their sexual selves. It is, normal, useful, and appropriate. Most people masturbate from time to time across the life span. Most guys do that too.

So where does the “All Guys Do It" defense unravel? Here are some examples. All guys do not make excuses to their partners to stay up long into the night in order to be alone with pornography. All guys do not slip into the men's room before an important meeting for a quick wack-off - just to steady their nerves. All guys do not go out of the way to do business with someone they have sexual fantasies about when to do so is otherwise inconvenient or time consuming. All guys don't keep their sex thoughts and actions secret from their partners. All guys don't… but sex addicts do.

Think of it this way. When the average guy walks past someone who is sexually attractive to him, he notices and thinks, “What an attractive person. It was a pleasure to see that person.” But a few seconds later, that person is no longer in that man's mind. When the same events occur to a sex addict, the person lingers in his mind. He may look over his shoulder, contrive a reason to turn around, take the same route the next day in hopes of seeing the same person, create opportunities to flirt with that person, or privately masturbate while fantasizing about that person. You see the difference between “All Guys” and Sex Addicts in the intensity, frequency, and duration of those responses.

It's not the attraction - it's the action. Among sex addicts the attraction becomes action without regard to wisdom, boundaries, or consequences. All guys don't do that. Sex addicts do.