Humour Helps Us Through



Contributed by Ian M Johnstone

2. It is only an apparent paradox that it helps in handling hardship to imagine some absurd, but faintly plausible, alternative way of seeing things.  When we laugh we oscillate between two competing aspects of reality, the very serious and the totally absurd.  We enjoy alternating these, as it gives us a chance to show off our flexibility, adaptability and versatility, acknowledging contrasting viewpoints.  This is much cleverer than being single mindedly serious.  When we laugh we signal that we are shaking mentally as well as physically, and adjusting to a fresh perception of how things are.   Jokes shake us up.  They act like jack-hammers breaking up too fixed ideas, so that we can free ourselves a little from the fog of conventions, propriety, and pedestrian expectations of ordinariness, which would swallow us like quicksands if we let them.

When we joke about something, or make light of it in a jocular way, we are showing that we are, as it were, bilingual; we can say things in the ordinary way, as well as in an unusual way. 

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Joking brightens our outlook, and indirectly makes us more realistic about our predicament, whether we are stuck on the side of the road miles  from anywhere, or in an arduous, demanding job, or in a relationship of friction or conflict or simply a lack of mutual interest or appreciation.  Joking provides an alternative response in every situation, and is especially useful where the usual and practical response is unpalatable, unattractive or uphill.  Humour frees us up, so that we feel in control again.  When we’ve got Buckley’s choice, humour gives us an ‘out’, a sort of notional escape hatch.  Temporary and intermittent deliberate excursions into jocular nonsense somehow act like a tightrope walker’s balancing rod to keep us steady, realistic and reliable.  Humour entertains and stimulates, while it subtly seeks to reform us.  Very often it has a message: ‘Don’t be so rigid’, ‘Don’t be so serious’: ‘Stay alert for other dimensions, other meanings, other ways of seeing, other solutions, other possibilities.’

Humour helps us keep sane, realistic and natural.  It pricks pomp and pretentiousness.  It disrobes Emperors.  It ridicules rigidity.  It ignores authority, sidesteps status, and pokes its tongue out at propriety.  It shrinks the exaggerated, and aggrandises the trivial.  It deflates the inflated, and inflates the deflated.  It undermines the overserious, and cantilevers it into absurdity.  It flaunts irreverence. It makes the tragic somehow ludicrous, and hardships somehow bearable, and the arduous task less like a chore.  Along with a poetic outlook, enjoyment of music, and a feeling of fitness, it makes a zestful life possible.

Michael Leunig’s cartoons mixing wistfulness and whimsy often give us fresh and amusing insights into the way we live, such as my favourite which has six captioned sketches under a heading “She’s Cracking Up”:

He was eating a hamburger.
He was eating a hamburger and listening to the radio.
He was eating a hamburger and listening to the radio and talking to a friend.
He was eating a hamburger and listening to the radio and talking to a friend and doing a right turn when the car phone rang.
It was his wife.
‘I can’t stand it any more’, she said, ‘this mad, crazy life.  I can’t cope.  Come home and help!’
‘Hell!’ he thought as he put down the phone and sped through a red light with the radio blaring saying with a mouthful of hamburger to his friend and lighting a cigarette, ‘It’s the woman … she’s cracking up!’ ”  
[Sydney Morning Herald  Saturday 19 October 1996]

Keith Willey wrote in his You Might as Well Laugh, Mate: Australian Humour in Hard Times (Macmillan 1984)

For the role of humour as a safety-valve and an aid in meeting adversity with a minimum of fuss has surely earned it a niche in any worthwhile philosophy of life.  In fact the possession of a sense of humour is almost indispensable for sound judgment since men who recognise the contrast between their own small pretensions and the greatness of the universe are less prone to pomposity and dogmatism. (p 2)