Laughter helps us handle difficulties, but only up to a point. Certainly we love to laugh, and we value good humor and even simple silliness — however if we only respond to discomfort by deflecting with jokes, we fail to address the actual cause of our problems. And of course not everyone uses their humor to spread happiness and joy.
We’ve all seen someone say “I’m an equal opportunity offender, I make fun of everyone”. They invariably put out this line in an attempt to justify their terrible racist and misogynist jokes. When we call them out, they say we need to get a sense of humor. But you can see their insecurity, their irrational fear and anger, and the hollowness inside them. Their “humor” serves no purpose but to poison the rest of us in the hope that they will not have to deal with their own inner poverty.
But obviously humor can bring joy and relief, and jokes can make your point, as long as they target the actual issues under discussion, as opposed to just throwing a crude verbal hand grenade at a person or a class of people. The Church of the Subgenius did an excellent job of lampooning the televangelists and mega churches of the 1980s, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster humorously makes a good case for the utterly imaginary nature of religious dogma. The Satanic Temple wants everyone to take them seriously, but of course we find it hilarious when they win the right to put up Satanic displays on government properties.
Humor can also convey teaching messages that might otherwise get ignored or rebuffed as pedantry. Idries Shah shared this traditional story of Mulla Nasrudin:
Nasrudin had saved up the money for a custom-made shirt. He paid the tailor, who said “it should be ready in a week, if Allah wills.” He patiently waited a week and then returned, and the tailor said “there has been a delay, the shirt should be ready in one more day, if Allah wills it.” Nasrudin came back the next day and the tailor said “I am so sorry, we just need to finish some details, if Allah wills it should be done by tomorrow.” The exasperated customer snapped “how long will it take if you leave Allah out of it?”
We also need to take care not to beat ourselves up excessively with self deprecation, because as we keenly repeat here, your words have power. In small doses self deprecatory humor can go a long way to greasing the social wheel, making others feel comfortable, and keeping our own egos in check. But the more you recite negative thoughts about yourself, the more they become true beliefs, rather than merely jokes.
Don’t get us wrong, we LOVE black humor, gallows humor, as it provides a release from grim reality, and allows us to mix two of our favorite things: laughter and mortality. This can protect us from some degree of harm. But delivering a moment of simple joy to yourself or someone else will actually help with healing. And healing old sorrows will allow us to build and grow and become better versions of ourselves.
So as an exercise, each time you crack a witticism, ask yourself whether it made someone honestly smile with joy, rather than sardonic cynicism or meanness. Make the joke as black as you like, but shoot for that twinkle of unmarred happiness that lifts us out of the grave for a moment.