I consider a good sense of humor as indispensable as dark chocolate. If you know me at all, that is saying a lot, because seldom does a day go by outside of Lent or Advent that I don’t eat some dark chocolate, whether my mainstay dark chocolate M&Ms or some wonderful single-origin dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s. Many is the time when a good sense of humor has defused a tense situation in our house, distracting young ones from their evil deeds or helping spouses see the love instead of the frustration of a disagreement. Of course, many of those things can be accomplished through dark chocolate, but that’s a topic for another day.
I personally am not very good at telling a joke, as my husband and friends can well attest. I would fail miserably as a stand-up comic. But I find that the older I get, the more I need to laugh, and, paradoxically, the more discerning I am about what makes me laugh. There is a lot of sadness in life–death, brokenness in ourselves and others, the state of the world–that it’s easy to get and stay down. So lots of laughter–and the right sort of it– becomes even more important.
That’s one of the reasons why I love Mary Eberstadt’s The Loser Letters, July’s book selection here at the Catholic Post Book Group. You’ll see in my review on Thursday that one of my favorite things about the book is that it makes me laugh in the right way.
But what do I mean by the “right kind” of laughter? I don’t mean that I’m a snob about it, like I can only laugh at intellectually high-brow jokes. I’m a big fan of silly puns and slapstick humor. For instance, we love Charlie Chaplin films at our house. And we laughed through Toy Story 3 recently (when this mom wasn’t weeping openly at the poignant parts).
C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in preparation for has an entire letter on the “danger” of humor to lead people closer to God. For those who have not read The Screwtape Letters, let me fill you in because we’ll be talking a lot this month about the mini-genre Lewis created with the book.
C.S. Lewis wrote the book as a series of fictional letters from a demon, Screwtape, to his apprentice nephew demon Wormwood. Everything is twisted in the book, so “the Enemy” is God and the advice is all backwards from what would make people happy.
C.S. Lewis’ tempter in The Screwtape Letters divides the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun the Joke Proper and Flippancy.
“You will see (joy) among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What the real cause is we do not know… Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity and austerity of Hell.”
I know many people can relate to this exact description. I was a younger sibling in a family of six kids, and when my older brother and sisters would return from college for a holiday, the kitchen table was always full of laughter as we sat and caught up with each other. But were we telling jokes? Not exactly; there was that kind of gentle ribbing that goes on in families, but we were laughing and smiling so much out of proportion to the jokes that it was clearly Joy.
What concerns me when I say the “right kind of laughter” is there is an awful lot of humor recently that really has nothing to do with Joy or Fun is being promoted as humorous.
I can think of certain modern authors, television shows and movies that really do nothing but sneer and ridicule the good, all under the pretext of “humor.” And if someone accuses them of that very thing, that person is ridiculed (more with an attitude than exact words) of “I’m just joking. Can’t you take a joke? Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
Yes, I do have a sense of humor. A good sense of humor.
Lewis writes about this very thing beautifully in Screwtape’s letter on humor:
“But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excited no affection between those who practise it.”
What do you think is meant by a “good sense of humor”? Do you think humor is important in living out a faith-filled life?