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Humor as a response to the human condition

Ford Madox Ford:

"Why, I remember on that afternoon I saw a brown cow hitch its horns under the stomach of a black and white animal and the black and white one was thrown right into the middle of a narrow stream. I burst out laughing. ... Because it does look very funny you know to see a black and white cow land on its back in the middle of a stream. It is just so exactly what one doesn’t expect of a cow.

Wendy Plump:

"I think my angel is drunk. That would explain everything."

Sherwin T. Wine:

”Life has an absurdity to it. It sometimes traps us in existential stairwells with no exit. We cannot figure out why we are there. And we cannot change what has happened. There are three alternatives. We can resign ourselves piously to the situation and pray, knowing that in some mysterious way getting stuck in a stairwell is for our own good. We can cry, wail and scream, hoping that some rescue force will hear our cry, take pity on us and save us. Or we can laugh.

Laughter is neither friendly nor reverent nor resigned. In the story of evolution it started out as turned away anger. Displaying teeth is not usually a friendly gesture. It is a prelude to biting. But instead of biting, laughers open their mouths and howl. There is always an edge of hostility to laughing. ‘Biting’ humor and mockery are always on the edge of even the kindest joke. When we hear laughter we are never sure whether they are laughing with us or at us.

Traditional religion and laughter are opposite ways of responding to the human condition. The heart of religion is worship, a recurrent surrender to the will of God. Worship rests on the profound conviction that all is well with the world even though the world appears to be sick. God is loving, just and orderly, even though we do not seem to be experiencing a lot of love, justice and moral order. From the human perspective the world is crazy. From the divine perspective the world, with all its supernatural rewards and punishments, is a wonderful place.

Laughing starts with the absurdity of life. Life is frustrating. The world is not fair. The good are punished more than they ought to be. The wicked are rewarded more than they ought to be. Kindness gets you rejection. Cruelty gets you power. Laughter is rarely welcome in religious institutions.

Laughter is a safe expression of anger and discomfort with the way life goes. It helps to drain our anger and keeps us from both apoplexy and going crazy.

Realists love laughter. It is one of their best strategies for survival. They resist resignation and avoid waiting. When the absurdity of the universe traps hem in the stairwell, they throw their heads back and laugh."

Brené Brown:

"1. Why are laughter, song, and dance so important to us?

2. Is there some transformational element that they have in common?

These were complicated questions to answer because, yes, we yearn to laugh and sing and dance when we feel joy, but we also turn to these forms of expression when we feel lonely, sad, excited, in love, heartbroken, afraid, ashamed, confident, certain, doubtful, brave, grief, and ecstasy (just to name a few). I’m convinced that there’s a song, a dance, and a path to laughter for every human emotion.

After a couple of years of analyzing my data, here’s what I learned:

Laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone.

Ironically, I learned the most about laughter during the eight years that I was studying shame. Shame resilience requires laughter. In I Thought It Was Just Me, I refer to the kind of laughter that helps us heal as knowing laughter. Laughter is a spiritual form of communing; without words we can say to one another, “I’m with you. I get it.”

True laughter is not the use of humor as self-deprecation or deflection; it’s not the kind of painful laughter we sometimes hide behind. Knowing laughter embodies the relief and connection we experience when we realize the power of sharing our stories—we’re not laughing at each other but with each other.

* * *

I know how much courage it takes to let people hear our hearts speak, but life is way too precious to spend it pretending like we’re super-cool and totally in control when we could be laughing, singing, and dancing."

Parker J. Palmer:

“Silence in a circle of trust differs from laughter in one important way, besides the fact that it is less noisy. The laughter that deepens our relationships is not a planned practice but a spontaneous response to shared experience. It is not the kind of laughter evoked by a skilled comedian. It is the kind that comes naturally as we spot – and throw the spotlight on – the comedy inherent in everyday life.”


Ford Madox Ford. The Good Soldier. Originally 1915. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995. p 35.

Wendy Plump. Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs). New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Sherwin T. Wine. Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living. Birmingham, Mich.: The Center for New Thinking, 1995. pp. 182-183.

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. p. 157.


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