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MIA: America's Sense of Humor

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When the United States of America unleashed its shock and awe campaign against the people of Iraq, my sense of humor went missing. I suppose it might have been good news if everyone's sense of humor had gone missing, because there was nothing funny about any of that stuff. In another sense—another sense of humor—it's the worst thing that could have happened. Let me explain:

Some years ago when I came into awareness of my spiritual Self[1] and learned that each of us is a one-of-a-kind creation with a being and expression unlike any other, I posed this question: for what am I known in the universe? Immediately I received this phrase: sense of humor. In that new stage of spiritual awakening—which for me had also awakened a fair amount of leonine narcissism—I was disappointed, having expected something a little grander. Was this some kind of cosmic joke, I wondered? Nevertheless, I accepted the challenge to explore my sense of humor. In fact, I took it very seriously! I contemplated it. I meditated on it. I prayed for illumination of it.

More than 30 years later I continue to uncover its nuances and vicissitudes. In eastern and western psychology, practitioners and researchers look at humor from many different angles. While some explore the use of humor, others contemplate the nature of humor itself. Several studies have explored the use of humor in mediating emotional states and effects of stress. While the effect of humor on stress and anxiety remains uncertain, most of the studies indicated that humor lessens depression. In another study, subjects watching a funny video were able to increase previous levels of tolerance for discomfort.

In social situations, humor appears to shape the meaning or the sense we make of our experience with others. Many studies focus on the relationship of sense of humor to other personality traits. People who score high on sense of humor scales, for example, may also be more creative, less dogmatic, and more capable of intimacy. Their immune systems cope more effectively with stress. They tend to deal with traumatic events more easily and are less likely to experience symptoms of depression.

Finally, much has been written in western psychology about sense of humor as a defense. It is considered to be a higher-level defense that some theorists regard as positive or adaptive. In this sense, for example, the use of humor allows us to express intense or uncomfortable feelings that might otherwise remain unspoken, and thus unhealed. What about the nature of humor itself?  What is it that makes us laugh at jokes or to see a situation as funny?  How do we experience humor? 

Try to recapture the experience of hearing a really funny joke. What was it like to hear the joke unfolding? Did you feel different before the punchline than you did afterwards?  Did you “get it” right away?  In the art of joke telling, all the stuff before the punchline increases levels of anxiety or tension in the person hearing the joke. At the moment we get the joke, we might notice that tension dissolves. Or, we may experience a gap, that is, a bit of open space around our thoughts. To “get it” we may have to open ourselves to a broader view of the world, letting go, if only for a moment, of our usual perspectives. 

This shift in perspective speaks to a sense of humor as presented in Tibetan Buddhism.[2] From this point of view, a person with a sense of humor sees things as if from above. This allows joyous, panoramic vision of the space of life around us. We can experience freedom from the usual battles between “this” and “that.”  We often get caught up in this polarity. Should I do this or should I do that?  Is that way better than this way?  When we try too hard to be good as opposed to bad, or to do everything right as opposed to wrong, we risk taking ourselves too seriously. We become rigid, or, as a Buddhist teacher might say, like a “living corpse.”  Compare the English expression, which describes someone as “dead serious.” 

To lose touch with our sense of humor is to lose touch with our creative, joyous, dynamic states of being. We begin to wonder. Do we take ourselves too seriously?  Can our sense of humor serve as an agent of transformation? Certainly we can relate these questions asked by eastern and western psychology to issues in our own soul healing. Our experience of humor can bring us into a deeper study of our minds and mortal personalities. And, yes, our sense of humor can be transformative.

How can we assess and cultivate our sense of humor? Not too tight, not too loose. When we lose our sense of humor we may find ourselves at the extremes of this polarity. Consider the state of mind we call depression. A depressed person may feel hopelessly stuck in heavy, dark emotional spaces. Simple daily activities seem overwhelming.

I once worked with a patient who reported that in the worst phases of her depression she literally saw the world only in black, white and gray. When her depression began to resolve, her color vision returned. Only then did she realize how much her perception had been altered by her state of mind.I found this person's experience especially interesting because many people who lose their sense of humor fall into a mode of black and white thinking.

This figure of speech of course refers to very rigid thinking that sees clear and immutable boundaries around polar opposites. More extreme personality styles include people who think only in black or white. Such people have difficulty with the idea of polarity. For them there can be only one way or one side. Without our sense of humor, we may find ourselves locked into these limited perceptual patterns. We get stuck in ongoing arguments with someone. We struggle with a question or can't make a decision. We tell our friends that we're "overloaded" or "spinning our wheels" or "in a rut." 

If we disconnect from our sense of humor, we may experience tunnel vision. You've probably heard the expression about someone not being able to see the forest for the trees. All of these symptoms relate to states of mind that are too tight.What about too loose, the other end of the spectrum? We fall into destructive habits and fail to engage discipline to restore balance. If someone asks what is happening in our life, we respond, "same ol', same ol'."  Some people try to make a joke out of everything. Others escape into a perspective that is too broad, and in this way avoid action or attention to difficult situations. Maybe we dismiss uncomfortable feelings or thoughts before they can be born fully into consciousness.

The concept of touch and go is another idea related to sense of humor. Many times we get stuck on something and can't let it go because we have not fully touched it. Not to worry, though. It' s the nature of the soul that these unborn, unsymbolized thoughts will keep coming up until they are acknowledged and transformed! How can we make our sense of humor more available in the process of personal and planetary healing? Certainly we can experiment with use of humor. When we watch a funny movie or share jokes we can observe what happens. Through direct experience of humor we can learn how it affects our state of mind. But how can we actually cultivate this tool?  First and foremost we must apply…guess what…a sense of humor!  Diligence and discipline must be balanced with light-handedness and light-heartedness. Not too tight, not too loose. Touch and go.

We also cultivate our sense of humor by cultivating awareness. A capacity for awareness or self-observation allows us to hear, feel or see what we are doing. We build an internal multimedia dictionary of personal styles and preferences, just as we might catalog our personal dream symbols. We begin to understand which of these is helpful and what gets us into more trouble. We notice those thoughts, feelings, or actions that warn us of being too tight or too loose.A number of activities facilitate growth in awareness.

Through meditation we connect with our transpersonal Self, with Source, or with teachers that are a main resource for soul healing. At the same time, we have a tremendous opportunity to observe and study the workings of our mental and emotional apparatus. When we meditate, for example, we may notice that our mind is off on a journey of its own. It is the nature of our mind to wander. It is also the nature of our mind to come back to awareness that it was just wandering. Our minds have a great sense of humor already built in!We can engage in other practices that also will help cultivate awareness. Tai Chi, Aikido, and many other martial arts are great for this. Writing, painting, singing or dancing can serve as awareness practices. So can doing dishes, or remodeling a house. Anything we choose to do mindfully can develop our awareness and sense of humor.

By now I hope you are having your own ideas about your sense of humor. My study of the sense of humor has led me into territory I could not have imagined in the beginning. As for my sense of disappointment when I asked my Self that simple question many years ago...I think the joke’s on me!More than ever we need a sense of humor!  We need it to heal our own souls. We need it in our partnership with those in other dimensions to bring all on Earth into higher consciousness.

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Cathie Bird, MA, PsyP, is a psychoanalyst, writer and citizen scientist in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. She currently chairs the Strip-mine Issues Committee of SOCM - Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment -- and is also a (more...)
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