by Stefano Bettera
Humor is a precious ally that reveals the tragic and funny paradox of our inadequacy and can be a central element in a secular approach to the dharma.
The meaning of an old joke
Woody Allen, the film director, introduces his movie, Annie Hall, with the following:
‘There’s an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills (New York, USA) mountain resort, and one of ’em says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such… small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.’
This is an effective example of how irony goes hand in hand with tragedy because it gives us the possibility and the tools to laugh at any condition and, in fact, helps us to live more lightly.
Why we laugh
But why are we laughing? Philosophers and scientists have always tried to answer this question to make sense of a behavior as universal as it is mysterious. Even a World Smile Day is dedicated to smiling, which is celebrated every year on the first Friday in October. If, however, it is true that we share humor and laughter even with the great apes and other animals, why we laugh really nobody knows for sure yet.
Positive Psychology has shown that we are happy because we laugh and not the other way around. Laughter creates a mix of endorphins, a group of substances produced by the brain, referred to as mood cocktails, that make us feel happy in our bodies. Laughter, in short, would be equivalent to being under the effect of a drug, a state of alteration of our ’normal‘ state of mind. In recent years scholars have developed a series of theories to try to shed light on the origin and mechanisms of laughter.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett, together with a team of researchers at the University of Indiana, in the USA, for example, supports the thesis that the human mind, stimulated by what is happening around it, continuously builds up conjectures, panoramas and hypotheses both on the intentions of others and on what might happen in the following moments. It is a kind of map useful for orientation and to distinguish between real perspectives and those of pure fantasy. Of course, error is always around the corner because the elements that can confuse our perception are remarkable. It is precisely from noticing the error and its strangeness that the humorous instinct is born.
Laughing at ourselves
It’s easy to laugh when others are wrong, but what about when it happens to us? Again, it seems that fun and irony are a reward that the mind reserves for itself for having been able to discover the trick anyway. In a nutshell, our brain is so evolved that it allows itself the perception of being wrong, the analysis of the situation and above all the ability not to take itself seriously and laugh about it.
But laughter also has a social aspect: the evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson proposed in 2005 in the Quarterly Review of Biology the thesis that in a social species like ours, natural selection has favored certain elements that can help not only the individual but also the group to survive. Among these is the conscious ability to use humor with the aim of mocking enemies and creating a sense of identity. Laughing for human beings has therefore become an emotional tool to encourage interaction, communication and to recognize those moments of serenity that, without tension or threats, could leave room for playfulness. So humor is a matter to be taken seriously.
God laughs at man
The importance of comedy as the keystone of the tragic is clear to man since the dawn of time and the biblical episode of Abraham and Isaac is perhaps the oldest example of ’humorous’ story telling in history; it is no coincidence that the name Isaac means ‘he who laughs’. Well, it is precisely at the most dramatic moment of this story that the twist occurs that overturns our certainties: God sends his winged lieutenant to stop the arm of the old patriarch who is about to sacrifice his son, for Abraham is convinced of how much his absolute faith in God guarantees him to act in the right way. Until the angel stops Abraham, the reader, as in any thriller, holds his breath. Then, all of a sudden, we have a paradox that changes an obvious ending.
In reality, it is we, not God, who are the comedians, who show each other how absurd absolute faith is and how ridiculous we are because, like Abraham, we have fallen for it: in this case the comic element is precisely in this God who laughs his ass off when, as the old adage says, you expose your plans to him. As often happens in Woody Allen’s films, the witty banter or the surprise twist brings into play the protagonist and his alter ego, the other self who believes he is master of the scene and shows how comedy is born from this very inadequacy. The quintessence of this irony therefore lies in that constant being out of place, disagreeing with oneself, being different, with a bit of pride and a bit of shame.
Oscillating between the sacred and the profane
However, what arouses laughter has always depended not only on the receptivity of those who perceive it, but also to factors related to the cultural and political context. Even denigration and self-denigration find a key role in triggering humor because they are another expression of this tension, of this comic tragedy that represents the trait of every human being’s life.
Aristophanes is the father of the comic literary tradition of ancient Greek theater where humor was shown by the use of sexual allusions, as well as invective against the leading figures of Athenian political life in the 5th century BC. The ruthless criticism of the society of his time is characterized by an abrupt, parodistic, sometimes vulgar and blasphemous tone. In this case, too, satire responds to a need of the human spirit: the oscillation between the sacred and the profane functions to bring to light alternative points of view In this context, laughter conveys small truths, sows doubts, unmasks hypocrisies, attacks prejudices and questions beliefs. What makes this tragic is because everything, especially clichés, must be the subject of laughter and desecration and, in the final analysis, they restore man’s most authentic humanity.
The destabilizing sarcasm of Zen
“How does a one-handed applause sound?”: In Buddhist tradition, ironic tricks like this koan are often used. The paradoxical and destabilizing sarcasm of Zen has a place of honor in the Pantheon of human intelligence at the service of spirituality. Not only because it is able to ‘lighten’ the burden of thoughts but precisely because the famous Zen stories show us how clinging to those thoughts that we continually generate and which are only points of view, is our own way of complicating things.
After all, the heart of wisdom contained in humor lies right here: in avoiding weighing facts down with interpretations and egocentricity and in trying to look at reality for what it is, regardless of the narrative we make up in our minds. Irony is one of our best allies because it breaks the usual patterns, questions rigidity, changes the frame of reference and allows us, without judgment, to realize the tragic paradox of our inadequacy. The lightness of laughter can therefore help us to break the connected dualisms of right/wrong, true/false, internal/external, and us/the others. These standard ways of viewing the world keep us hooked to our ego and hold us back from the freedom to experiment, to be open, to enjoy the time we have and all our experiences, including the negative ones.
Finally, who doesn’t remember the figure of Patch Adams, the clown doctor played by the American actor, the extraordinary Robin Williams? This unusual American doctor had put into practice an intuition as simple as it was transformative: healing starts from the soul, from the heart, no matter how the body decides to behave. Especially with young patients a moment of joy and laughter can accompany the healing process and make it more human, more shared, and more compassionate.
A great American Zen master who died in 2018, Bernie Glassman, followed in the same footsteps and even founded the Order of Disorder, starting from the assumption that the clown manages to show contradictions and hypocrisy with a sense of humor when no one else dares to do so. In this way he understands the unity of life because it has to do with the situations and people we normally reject, those who have been pushed to the margins of society or whom we simply disagree with. The clown awakens us to the fact that they are all parts of us, no matter how tight the boundaries that have closed off our lives. It heals us in this way.