It happens all the time: A tense, stressful situation at work, then an offhand remark, followed by laughter and perhaps a knowing nod. The tension is reduced. Such spontaneous humor can maintain morale or it can reinforce feelings of despair and helplessness. It all depends.
Working as a hospital chaplain, I often wondered about the spontaneous humor generated in this stressful environment: areas like the emergency unit, intensive care, neurosurgery, and coronary care. The flippant observations, verbal shorthand expressions that are quickly understood by those sharing the experiences.People acquainted with such settings know that this humor has a distinct flavor. Simply stated it's crude, so crude that it is "for staff ears only." Its conveyors are fully aware of its offensiveness, should it be overheard by others. More often than not the humor victimizes the patients and, when taken at face value, it conveys insensitivity,even though this is never, never the intent of the purveyors of such humor.
Actually, my interest was more on what wasn't said than what was. I had some understanding of the need of what I then called "negative humor." But the glaring absence of positive humor, how come? I reasoned this way: if the humor inherent in these settings was negative, then some essential quality was absent. What that was or how to express it, I had no idea.
Then sometime later, while examining American frontier humor, I found similar dynamics but from a more comprehensive viewpoint. This viewpoint gave me a systematic way to consider this negative-positive humor phenomenon.My categories now became "coping" and "hoping" humor. Here are examples of two different humorous treatments of a single theme. This gives an "experiential" basis for understanding the distinctions I make between these two.
The theme is aging. Aging is a fact of life, one that has demoralizing possibilities. The following examples are from contemporary birthday cards:.Feeling old? Don't. We know someone your age.
and on good days he can still feed himself.Another in this same vein: (Woman on the telephone) Your birthday today? Really? How old? No?.Have a nice yesterday.Then this one: Happy birthday It's reassuring to know that, while growing older, worn out cells are being cast off and replaced by new ones.Think of it as a giant garage sale going an all over your body.
Now the first two are examples of "coping" humor. This humor laughs at the hopelessness in human life. The third is humor celebrating the hope in human life.
It was two theories advanced to explain the creativity and vitality of the frontier humor that suggested these distinctions. One came from Mark Twain's biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. He understood frontier humor to be the result of despair, explaining it this way, ".
all frontiersmen were obliged to be laughing philosophers in order to survive the stress of its warfare. The fight was so desperate, to take it seriously was to surrender. Women laughed that they might not weep, men laughed when they could no longer swear." This theory has many adherents. But historians Bernard De Voto and Max Eastman advanced another.
According to it, optimism and enthusiasm were the dynamics of frontier humor, not despair. Hope, not hopelessness, was its underlying factor.In considering these saw no need to choose between them for the human condition embraces both. Hopelessness and hope are both realities of human life. For example, mortality is a fact. It is therefore hopeless to try to live forever.
But there is hope for achieving the fulfillment of life. This too is reality.Laughing at the hopeless is what I call "coping" humor. An illustration from frontier life, a story inspired by the successive grasshopper plagues that continually threatened the settlers.
Sometimes they were so thick their weight broke trees when they lighted on them.A settler was plowing his field. He went to his house for a drink of cold water from his well.
While pumping he saw a heavy cloud of grasshoppers drop over the spot where he'd left his team of horses. He ran back as fast as he could. When he got here the grasshoppers had eaten his team and his harnesses and were pitching the horses' shoes to see which got the farmer.Coping humor, then, does not build morale.
Rather it generates an energy that allows a person to "hang in there." To become refreshed enough to have another go at the impossible, or in our terms, at the hopeless. But to restate: it doesn't free one from the demoralizing facts or from the awareness of the continued presence of the hopelessness in our lives.
In hoping humor we find different factors at work. Compare this next frontier story to the one about the grasshoppers.A Texas ranger and his Indian scout were riding across the sand hills in a fierce wind storm. To their surprise they saw lying on top of one of the sand dunes a man's hat. They dismounted and the ranger picked it up.
Underneath he found a man's head. Frantically the ranger and the scout began scratching away the sand from the man's eyes, ears, mouth. The man said, "Get a shovel, I'm on horseback.".
In this, laughter at the man's helplessness in the face of nature's overwhelming forces is not reinforced. Rather, the humorous element is the indomitableness of the human spirit. It is a humor of hope.Thinking in terms of mood rather than content, contrast TV's Archie Bunker in All in the Family with the old Bill Cosby Show. Their basic treatments, premises and foci are not the same. Audiences found a different "feel" in their laughter.
All in the Family fell into the coping variety while The Cosby Show into the hoping type. I would also include Norman Rockwell's paintings, and Garrison Keillor's "Lake Woebegon" stories in the hoping type.This point should be underscored: A humor that will sustain spiritual and emotional well being require a dynamic relationship between the hoping and coping. The two need each other.What I'm saying is that coping humor alone cannot sustain the human spirit. When it becomes the predominate fare, this humor, in time, turns back on itself.
It become sarcastic, cynical, destructive and even vindictive for it anticipates nothing but the hopeless.Nor can hoping humor go it alone. What's it to do with the hells of life; those times when all that can be heard is the wailing and the gnashing of teeth? When life is just too much for us with no end in sight, when darkness comes but the enemy will not break off. In these times a Rockwell painting or a "Woebegon" story just won't cut it. Surely there is sound reason for the second- most-used expression in church liturgy, "God have mercy." (c) 2006 Cy Eberhart Author's note: This article is a revision of his Keynote Address at the International Conference on Humor at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona..As a hospital chaplain Cy Eberhart, (now retired) was a firsthand witness to the entire spectrum of human emotions: personal successes and failures; the deepest despairs and the great peaks of joy. Two questions remained foremost in his mind: How was it that some could find inner strengths that brought courage and hope and others could not? What was to be learned from these experiences that would have a positive and creative effect for daily, routine living?.His lectures, writings, workshops, book In the Presence of Humor and his living-history performances of America's famed humorist Will Rogers offers some of the answers.
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By: Cy Eberhart