Following the events of September 11, 2001 and the terrorism that ensued, I continued traveling around the country, addressing groups about the healing power of humor and laughter. I heard a variety of comments:
“I really want to laugh, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
“I can’t bear to watch another news report—it’s sucking the life right out of me.”
“I feel like laughing, but I’m afraid other people will think I’m being inappropriate. Is it really okay to laugh yet?”
Abraham Lincoln may have said it best: “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.”
Now more than ever, we, as individuals and as a country, need the healing power of humor and laughter to deal with the tragedies we experience. Reports showed that the country is in poorer health overall than it was prior to September 11th. Accompanying the levels of higher anxiety and stress are people suffering from a myriad of stress related illnesses and conditions: Headaches, stomachaches, general malaise, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, muscle aches, difficulty concentrating, depression, and the list goes on.
People find many ways to cope with their stress including unhealthy means, such as abuse of drugs, alcohol, food, sex and work among others. A healthy person needs a variety of coping mechanisms at his disposal, as there is no single coping mechanism that will be right for every situation. Humor should be one of the many tools one carries in his repertoire, as it is recognized as one of the healthy coping mechanisms we have available at our disposal.
Humor relieves anxiety and tension, serves as outlet for hostility and anger, and provides a healthy escape from reality. It lightens heaviness related to critical illness, trauma, disfigurement, and death. It comes as no surprise that many people are utilizing humor to deal with the trying times. But is the humor timely? Is it appropriate?
“When tragedy and death cloud our lives, they darken our humor as well.” (Karyn Buxman, This Won’t Hurt A Bit)
Much of the humor that saw after 9/11 is what has been referred to as gallows humor, dark humor or black humor. In her book, Humor and the Health Professions, nurse researcher Vera Robinson explains, “(Black humor) is a humor that people have always used when they feel hopeless and helpless, when there is nothing we can do to change what has happened. Black humor is a defense against the horror against whatever it is we fear and is a way to master it, and give us a sense of control by laughing at it.”
The truth is that we all experience tragedy on a variety of levels. For some of us, it may be on a personal level. At times, it may be on a community level. And periodically we experience tragedy on a national or even global level.
On a personal scale
None of us will escape experiencing personal tragedy: Illness, accident, loss of job, divorce, or death in the family. These painful ordeals can sometimes evoke humor that allows us to ventilate our frustrations about such unfair events in life.
Sometimes when we use humor to cope, others discourage us with comments about the inappropriate nature of the humor. One patient told me that when making a joke about his cancer his daughter admonished him by saying, “Dad, you must not understand just how sick you are or you wouldn’t be cracking jokes about this.”
Author Allen Klein asked terminally ill patients about the use of humor and laughter during their illnesses. Over three fourths of those surveyed said they wished their care providers and support persons would use more humor and not discourage them (the patients) from using humor.
On a community scale
Communities experience tragedies such as floods, earthquakes, fire, natural disasters, loss of industry or politicians caught in compromising situations.
1993 marked ‘The Flood of 500 Years’ on the Mississippi River. Communities along the entire river experienced flooding, destruction of property, loss of homes and jobs, and sometimes death. Yet, humor marked the will of people to keep their spirits afloat, not to be oppressed and depressed by the Muddy Mississippi. In Iowa the Des Moines Register held a contest, “I’m a Floody Mess,” where contestants tried to one-up one another with descriptions of their misery. When the local water system failed as a result of the flood, and running water for drinking and bathing was no longer an option, one contestant wrote, “I smell so bad that my Sure deodorant is undecided.”
Following the 2007 fires in San Diego, in which almost half a million people were temporarily displaced and thousands lost their homes, healing and recovery once again were marked by signs of humor—sometimes literally. In front of one home which had been reduced to ashes, the owner posted a sign that said, “Fire Sale! Everything Must Go!”
On a national scale
Unfortunately we will witness events that have national ramifications, such as the Shuttle Challenger explosion, and even global ramifications, such as the loss of the World Trade Center in New York. With the technological advances in mass media, events that might once have been local tragedies now impact people near and far: The shootings at Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina: These events hit home through television, radio and print around an entire nation and beyond.
At times, the humor demonstrated after these events was a ‘hoping humor’, a “let’s hang in there together and we’ll get through this together” kind of humor. The focus of the humor was more situational and unrelated to the tragedy; the humor was used as a relief mechanism from feelings of sadness and feeling overwhelmed. One survivor of the Oklahoma City Bombing commented, “I laugh because I’m cried out.”
While we certainly see many examples of ‘hoping humor’ related to the tragedies of recent terrorism, we also see ‘coping humor’ or the humor that is used to express anger in a socially acceptable way. By targeting humor at the ‘enemy’ or the oppressors, we are able to whittle them down in size and feel more powerful, more superior.
Some of the humor after 9/11 was grotesque, such as computer exercises allowing us to shoot Osama bin Laden in virtual games or blow up terrorists with a keystroke from the comfort of our own computer. Some humor was less violent, yet still targeting our enemies. An example is an e-mail forwarded to me:
“The nonviolent solution currently being circulated is to say to the Taliban: Give us Osama bin Laden or we will take all of “your” women and send them to college.”
The Internet provides opportunities galore to express our frustration and disgust through games, cartoons, websites, jokes, discussion boards, chat rooms and e-mail targeting bin Laden, the Taliban and the like.
The challenge: What is stress relieving for some is stress producing for others. While some find gallows humor to be a positive means of dealing with their stress, others find these expressions of humor to be salt rubbed into an already irritated wound. What’s appropriate? What’s not? There is no clear-cut answer. Gallows humor can be a positive means of coping with anxiety, but it helps if certain guidelines are followed:
Establish a bond: Gallows humor is less offensive when there is a bond between the initiator and receiver of the humor. Often this is a type of ‘inside humor’ that is utilized within certain the boundaries of a certain group of people. There is an almost unspoken agreement: “I’ll not be offended by your sick humor if you agree not to be offended by mine.”
Be aware of the environment: The trick is to keep the humor within the confines of said group. Once the dark humor escapes the confines of the group, it then may become hurtful. Anyone who hears, sees or experiences the humor is part of the audience, whether you intended them to be or not. Think twice before hitting the ‘forward’ key on an e-mail or blurting out a joke you just heard. Will it be hurtful if unintended audience members intercept?
Be sensitive to the timing: H. G. Wells once said, “The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” Generally it takes time for people to see any humor derived from pain or discomfort. Some people never will. Every person’s situation is unique and determined by their own set of circumstances and life experiences.
Despite its multiple benefits, humor is always risky business. Try as you may to be politically correct, there will almost always be someone waiting in the wings to be offended. The humor or laughter provides an excuse for him to ventilate about an unspoken and deeper issue. That being said, if you choose to use humor to cope with difficult times and are mindful of the feelings of others then, more than likely, most folks won’t mind if you laugh. Indeed, they may welcome the respite.