26169"Humour: The salt of life" by Abhinabha
- Jun 15, 2014
Humor: the salt of life
This article starts with a spoiler alert: if you still want to read Umberto Eco’s famous book The Name of the Rose, better skip this paragraph. The reason I bring it up is that it contains an interesting dispute on laughter and humor. In Eco’s book the old and blind library monk Jorge of Burgos hates laughter. He considers it spiritually dangerous because it makes fear disappear, and without fear man would not be afraid of the devil and therefore would have no need of God. Jorge wants to protect his monastery from the intrusion of laughter and therefore poisons the pages of a book by Aristotle on comedy, killing everyone who touches the text. Eco’s book is essentially a detective story, with the visiting monk William of Baskerville acting as the detective deciphering the killings and eventually exposing Jorge as the culprit.
In the context of the medieval times in which the book is set we could perhaps believe that a strict monk would uphold such a negative theory on laughter. In those days death was the be-all and end-all of life, and the threat of the Last Judgement hung over everyone’s head like a sword of Damocles. Naturally it gave birth to a rather solemn and joyless outlook on life. Fortunately we have some progress since those dark days. No contemporary monk would ever deem laughter spiritually dangerous.
On the contrary, humor is spiritually highly beneficial. Without it we would wither away like dry flowers. Humor has that magical capacity to bring hope to a hopeless situation, to change sorrow into joy and, as Jorge of Burgos rightly contended, make fear disappear. And the great thing about humor is that it can accomplish these things in the twinkling of an eye. One quip, joke or funny turn of phrase can bring about a burst of laughter. And laughter – if it is of the right kind – will take us out of our mind with its confusions and obscurities, and install us once more safely inside our heart with its joys and tranquilities.
Yet laughter can also be painful or out of place. When we laugh at someone else’s misfortune or mistakes we only hurt that person and add to his suffering. To make a joke out of everything is to become a fool oneself. A good sense of humor comes with good timing and good taste.
Sometimes humor can change the world. In 1985 when Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at the height of the cold war, Reagan opened the conversation with a joke. An American and a Russian meet. “My country is the best,” the American says, “because I can walk to the White House and tell the President he is doing a lousy job.” “Big deal,” scoffs the Russian. “I can do the same thing. I can also walk to the Kremlin and tell Gorbachev that Reagan is doing a lousy job.’” Gorbachev chuckled and the ice was broken. The two Presidents started to like each other and four years later the iron curtain fell.
In my years of spiritual practice I have found that meditation actually helps in developing a sense of humor. It seems contradictory, since sitting silently on a cushion for half an hour is hardly food for a side-splitter. But meditation does clear the mind, ridding it of worries and anxieties and providing it with insight and creativity. Meditation also makes the heart more spontaneous, as it takes away the burdens of self-consciousness and self-doubt. And spontaneity combined with insight and creativity make up the perfect ingredients for a good and healthy sense of humor.
A practical example. When one friend of mine – now in his fifties – gives meditation classes he often starts by saying that meditation is good for health as it reverses the process of aging, keeping the body cells young (this is actually not a joke, but scientifically proven fact!). After which he dryly adds, “To give you an example, I’m seventy-three right now, but people tell me I look quite young for my age.”
One day he got the shock of his life when at one particular class the people didn’t laugh after his joke. They thought he was serious. Which goes to show that God also has a good sense of humor.