Lent (Day 4)

Humor and Joy — a continuation of consideration of Chapter 1, “The Infallible Sign” of Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth.

Martin notes that there are two kinds of humor, just as there are two kinds of laughter.  The good kind can build up, and it also can cut through “cant and hypocrisy.”  The bad kind belittles the marginalized (making fun of someone).  I tend to see humor primarily as a way to cut through the crap.  You can see this every evening on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, where the canned statements of politicians (“it’s for the children” and the like) are exposed for what they are, cliched phrases that don’t really say anything,and certainly don’t say what they purport to say.  Humor has always done this — this was what the court jester’s job was — to poke fun at the powerful and find ways to short circuit their pompous pronouncements.  In some ways, it’s akin to the idea presented on Ash Wednesday, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  It’s a reminder to remember one’s place, which is not above (or below) another, but equal to them.  Such humor uses words to expose the limits, and develop the promise, of language.  The mountain of words we build around ourselves can serve as a tower of babble keeping us from reaching that ultimate goal, a union with the world (or God).  That ultimate truth is transcendent, beyond our words (no matter how big our vocabularies), and we fool ourselves when we try to pin that ultimate truth down with words.  In foregrounding the slipperiness of language, humor undercuts that tendency.  And one might say that such a practice would undercut any value words might have, but I don’t think so.  For I think humor helps us meditate on words and their wonder, even as it uses them in strange ways.  And so, humor can, in its own way, be a form of prayer.

And what about joy?  Martin discusses Paul VI’s encyclical “Gaudete in Domino” (“On Christian Joy”), an encyclical largely forgotten, in which Paul VI notes that all of the devices we’ve come up with for pleasure, but how we’ve lost joy, for joy is something spiritual and not material.  And joy does seem to me to be something deeper, something that cannot be got because you’ve used the right toothpaste, or drunk the right soft drink.  Those things might offer some comfort, but, as Mick Jagger suggests, they don’t bring real “satisfaction.”  Joy cannot be forced, but comes, I believe, as a revelation.  It is something that comes when we have “aha” moments, or “hoho” moments.  And it doesn’t last — it isn’t continuous.  But I think that some memory of it lingers in our hearts and minds, and we can recall that moment, and, if we don’t focus so much on that great joy experienced, and now gone, it or another moment of joy will make itself felt.  

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