What’s Funny?

It’s cool to be funny these days. We love to watch the late-night-comedian commentators shredding their enemies with laughter. Twitter is full of poking fun at people, always, of course, from a safe distance. We love the chuckles we get from exposing inconsistencies, misstatements, flubs, especially for important people in the news, but sometimes even for those close to home. We get a perverse pleasure seeing others brought down to size, belittled, humiliated. There’s a certain power here. We think we render ourselves more righteous, smarter, more capable than the ones we ridicule. We love laughter, but we’ve got to admit, sometimes, funny is not very funny.

It’s only a short step from here to general sarcasm. A lot of people pride themselves in carrying around sarcasm like a sheathed dagger. Sarcasm can be deadly. A sarcastic edge feeds the same impulse toward power. We think we can control our world and others if we take a sarcastic swipe. It feels self-rewarding. It’s a shield from making ourselves vulnerable. From here it’s another short step into cynicism, one of those hallmark postures of the twentieth century. How could sanity survive without a touch of cynicism?

Oh my, you might say, aren’t you dour today? Lighten up. It’s Christmas time. Good night, we need a good laugh in order to survive the absurdities of life. I think back on Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, that masterpiece of letting laughter ward off threatening despair. Things have become utterly absurd, Heller believed. We might as well laugh because there is nothing else to keep us sane. Everything’s absurd. Might as well laugh a little.

Well, sure. There’s that old adage that Puritans lie awake at night desperately afraid that someone somewhere is having fun. Okay, I get it. Opposing humor is a little too much. But still, I have come to feel this skeptical, sarcastic, cynical spirit—too often passing as something funny—spreads out across our land like dirty fog. It creeps into our homes. And it’s damaging. It is not healthy. It’s motivated by power over others, the power to build up ourselves, to put our egos on the throne, while at the same time putting others down, belittling, hurting others. And that’s not cool.

The sixth-century founder of monasticism, St. Benedict, after beautifully laying out all the important rules for a healthy, functioning community, warns against laughter. Really, against laughter? Yes, it is the tenth step on the path toward humility. Michael Casey helpfully adds: “This is the least defensible of Benedict’s prohibitions.” To be sure, but what Benedict was likely getting at was that laughter can too often be directed at someone, and that will always be hurtful, destroying relationships, ultimately damaging community. Laughter can often turn on a dime toward the putdown, a poke where it hurts, a laugh at someone else’s expense. My wife Sharon, like Benedict, had zero toleration for teasing as our family was growing up. She was always alert to the fun that turned suddenly hurtful. Yes, teasing can often damage a family, an organization, a church, even a country.

So, maybe as we sit at our tables for Christmas dinner with beloved family and friends we might think about our humor, our jokes, our teasing. Let’s protect our humor from sliding off into the snide sneers of any sort. Let’s not let ourselves get sucked into the cynicism that stands in for being smart and funny. It’s not smart. It’s dumb. Ultimately it’s not funny. Let’s try to be kind to others and to our world this Christmas, even to our leaders, certainly to our colleagues, to friends as well as to strangers. Sounds a little clichéd, I know, but let’s offer a gift of kindness this Christmas, an encouragement, just some simple niceness. Just say the nice thing, and then resist the temptation to undercut with the follow-on snicker, the humph that’s supposed to put us back in control. The nice thing will make us vulnerable for a moment. That’s the risk. But it might change things. It might change us. It could change the Christmas dinner table. Hey, it might even change our world.