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Humor 1.0

I picked this title, “Humor 1.0”, because on my personal list of concepts shaping my understanding of courage, humor is near the top. So, there are many iterations of this topic still to come. This one highlights an early personal lesson about humor that shaped all my subsequent discoveries about it.

In a prior posting on “Words” I noted that my brother Bob, three years my senior, was a source of several powerful life lessons. Here is another story about his role in my pathways to wisdom.

Early in my life I realized that when Bob was curious about some topic, he didn’t simply “check it out”, but tended to conduct a “deep dive” into the topic, essentially ferreting out any available information about this topic. I used to mock this until one day I noticed I had the same pattern and revamped my position, thinking it now quite clever.

I also learned that if Bob got interested in a topic, I could cancel my “deep dive” on that topic since he would always share his findings. While he could provide the dense and detailed version, one could negotiate for the summary version. I often opted for the summary, especially when my kids were young, my work was demanding, and my time seemed limited.

One day Bob announced that he was initiating a deep dive into “humor”. This human capacity, humor, was one that was well developed among our tribe of siblings, and he was curious about it. I enthusiastically supported his efforts, periodically asking him how it was going, eagerly waiting for the summary. This went on for about six years as I remember it, with him assuring me that the work was progressing. My favorite memory of this stretch is when he told me enthusiastically that he had found a six-volume encyclopedia set on humor. Right!

Then one day he told me he was done with the deep dive. I was thrilled. “What did you find out?” He pondered a bit, in search of the words or message, and then said quietly “You laugh at what you no longer fear.” I was intent on finding out the whole summary, so asked “What else?” He paused again and said “Well, that’s about it.”

I was stunned. Six years and only one sentence! Wow! We went on, as I remember it, with a discussion about all the things people call humor that are not humor: snarky asides, denigrating observations about others, verbal cruelty, self-aggrandizement: there is actually a long list here. Getting sophisticated about what I had thought was humor seemed like a good idea.

Over the years though, I kept going back to his summary sentence. “You laugh at what you no longer fear.” I opted first for self-reflection, always a good point of departure, I had learned. I realized that when I could not laugh at something it was a red flag, evoking the obvious question: What was I afraid of? Then I had choices to make and actions to take. Did I want to be held hostage by the fear or engage it, learn about it, let go of it, challenge it, transcend it, let it reveal its embedded lessons? “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”

The second focus of my ponderings was about others. I realized that I had been dismissive of people who lacked humor, like they had a personality defect. Or I would be startled when someone I thought had a great sense of humor suddenly could not laugh at something. I realized that often I failed to see that others were grappling with their fears. I also learned to slow down: when someone could not laugh, I focused instead on what might be the fear lurking and its meaning and impact. “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”

I also learned to celebrate emergent laughter. I worked as a therapist with depressed women for 18 years, carrying a small case load to provide credence and realism in my teaching as a psychiatric nurse educator. I discovered that for my clients, laughter was the most telling indicator of progress: when they began to laugh again, they were on a healing path toward a more healthy self-perception. “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”

Finally, I learned to not take it personally when others were offended by my humor, or treated it like it was something intended to do harm. I realized that intention surpasses interpretation (“surpass” is the word I am trying to use to replace my prior preferred word “trump” …). Just because others were offended by something I said humorously did not mean I was trying to do harm. It did, however, provide some clues to what was important to this person, and what they feared, whether they knew it or not. “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”

It seems self-evident but worth noting: all these reflections changed me in substantive ways, shaped my adult life. They also helped me understand courage, which informs and shapes the purpose of this blog and my coaching work: courage emerges from feeling and facing fear, and acting in spite of the fear from a personal conviction about right and wrong. “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”

“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”

- Lucille Ball -


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