Archive for March, 2014


Lent (Day 16) — “Happiness Attracts,” cont’d.

Finishing up Martin’s third chapter, “Happiness Attracts: 11 1/2 Serious Reasons for Good Humor”

Point 9: “Humor fosters good human relations.”  On this point, Martin makes the claim that humor is good in any institutional environment, as it helps to build community (we share laughs).  Of course, this claim only works with “good humor,” or generous humor.  When humor turns snarky, though it can help build a common bond (as in a clique), it has a divisive and corrosive quality.  I know all about this from personal experience.  When I first started teaching, I found myself far too often descending into sarcasm.  That didn’t help build any bond with my students.  It made the target of the sarcasm feel small, and his classmates feel some level of resentment at my bullying.  It took me a while to wean myself of the sarcasm, but getting past that is important.  And humor that brings a group together can help the group think more “broadly and creatively,” looking towards the future with hope and promise.  It can be a confidence builder and help people take some risks with their fellows.

Point 10: “Humor opens our minds.”  It’s easy to get caught up in seeing ourselves and our world in terms of labels, of limiting ourselves.  Humor helps get us past that.  Martin tells of two people he counseled in retreats over the years, who had a limited view of themselves, one thinking that she had no imagination, and the other thinking that he was a practical guy, all about doing stuff (which was more difficult as he got old).  Some shared humor helped both get past their limited way of seeing themselves and the world and opened up new possibilities.

Point 11 and 11 1/2: “Humor is fun,” and “Humor is often practical.”  On the second point, Martin mentions someone getting out of a speeding ticket by responding “I got here as fast as I could,” to a state policeman’s snarky comment that “I’ve been waiting all day for you.”  That makes me think that humor is a way of extending one’s hand to another — it’s an opening to fellowship, and can be quite powerful as a bonding agent.

Martin closes the chapter with a quotation from Karl Rahner: “A good laugh is a sign of love. It may be said to give us a glimpse of, or a first lesson in, the love that God bears for every one of us.”  Laughter is something we share, something that builds community, and offers play rather than the rigors of work.  It can be most effective in helping people past difficult times.  Years ago I worked on a political campaign, one that was somewhat disorganized, so we often had a lot of stuff to do at the end of filing periods.  And I remember the head of the office complimenting me by exhibiting such joie de vivre (she probably didn’t use that term) when things got tough and people were eager to take a break when we needed them most.  That spirit caught several of the people ready to leave for the day or the week and got them to reengage, so the work got done.  I found that compliment especially satisfying, not only because I was being recognized for doing something good, but because I had helped to enact what I think is a deep held view of mine — we’re all in this together, and, for a moment, at least, I helped to build community.  


Lent (Day 15) — and the last day of Winter Reading 2014

Well, as often is the case, I underestimate the time required of stuff, and so I was unable to finish ch. 3 of Martin’s book, and unable to finish the book as well.  Well, I’ll continue to read through it until I finish, and will continue to post at through Lent.  But this will be the last link I’ll post on the Library’s site, as Winter Reading has come to an end for this year.  Be sure to get your reading logs in, if you haven’t already, get your stunning Winter Reading cup, and be entered for a Kindle Fire.  And come to one of the various parties being held throughout the library system in the next couple of weeks (check with your local Kansas City Public Library for details).  

My failure to finish this book before the end of Winter Reading I take as a good sign — it reminds me that there’s still lots of humorous stuff out there to read, that reading doesn’t stop with Winter Reading, or Summer Reading, for the kids.  It’s something we can, and should do every day.  But now on to Martin’s book.

This chapter has 11 1/2 Serious Reasons for Humor.  Here are 7 and 8.

7: Humor Welcomes — In this section, Martin talks about the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.  Abraham, at an age near 100, and his wife, Sarah, around 90, did not have children of their own.  When three strangers came to their house (angels, or perhaps God in disguise with two angels), Abraham greeted them with generous hospitality.  He was told, as a reward, that his wife Sarah would have a child, at which Abraham laughed, and Sarah laughed.  When the child was born, they called him Isaac (“he laughed”) to commemorate the moment.  I’ve known this story for about 22 or so years.  My first wife was involved with someone (we were divorced at the time), and she became pregnant.  This came as quite a shock to her, and she recalled the story of Sarah and Abraham.  When a girl was born, she named the girl Sarah.  What always struck me about that story was the grace with which my ex had taken the news that she was pregnant (there was no guarantee that the guy planned on sticking around).  And the ready acceptance of her situation, and the determination to make the situation work — that really impressed me (and impresses me to this day).  It’s the acceptance of a new and frightening prospect of pregnancy alone that we see in the story of Mary.  It’s ultimately saying “yes” to life, which isn’t always easy to do.

8: Humor is healing.  In this section, Martin mentions some books, The Stress Manager’s Manual and Anatomy of an Illness, in which the authors speak of how important humor is, that it has positive physical effects — releasing endorphins into the system, and cleansing the system of the hormone cortisol.  Fighting life, or maintaining a system that is not viable, takes a lot of effort and results in a great deal of stress.  Humor, it seems, can help us get past the pain and the stress and live better lives.  

And so, as a final parting note — continue to read and laugh.  It’s good, and good for you.


Lent (Day 14) — an Interlude…

Last night, as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s “Winter Reading Program 2014,” I got to introduce and watch and discuss Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  And it is as funny now as it ever has been.  The premise of the show was to recycle some of the plots of the Roman comic playwright, T. Maccius Plautus (c.254 – c.184 BCE) and weave them into a new play.  It is what Plautus himself had done.  As one of the oldest Latin authors (and the oldest of whom we have entire works), Plautus looked to Greek originals for inspiration and material.  Classical scholars used to assume that Plautus, in reusing the material, was not as good as the originals he borrowed from.  They claimed that the Greek New Comedy (a situation comedy form, different from the Old Comedy which was highly political and topical) authors like Menander must have been geniuses, if only we had their works.  What we have of Menander and his contemporaries suggests that Plautus was his own comic genius.  He took what would have seemed tired plots by his day and created his own brand of silliness, with outrageous elements from Italian comic forms (more like skits),  And, if you read Plautus in a translation by someone sympathetic to Plautus’ aims, such as Erich Segal, you find Plautus’ plays were quite funny, laugh out loud funny.  In some ways, when I think of Plautus, I think of the Marx Brothers, who were part of a tradition of vaudeville comedy, but who ramped up the level of silliness and craziness to new heights.  The plots of Marx Brothers films are not so remarkable, but the comedy within is outstanding.  

But what’s the point of all that silliness and craziness?  Well, in the recap of Funny Thing‘s theme tune, “Comedy Tonight,” the company looking directly at the camera, while spinning around on a carousel of some sort, sing “Well, what is the moral?  Must be a moral.  Here is the moral, wrong or right.  Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight.”  It’s not that the play, and the film based on the play, do not address serious subjects (Pseudolus’ desire to be free is a serious theme of the play), but while watching this silly show, better not to worry about serious themes.  Put them on hold for a minute, get in the swing of things, and laugh aloud.  At another point in the musical, the procurer, Marcus Lycus, trying to get information from Pseudolus regarding Philia, his slave girl whom Pseudolus has convinced has the plague, tries to speak with Pseudolus during the singing of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”  And after a few vain attempts to speak with Pseudolus while the song is going on, Lycus just joins in.  In other words, forget about the plot, forget about any attempt to appear “real” (something film is supposed to be good at) — just shut up and sing.  It’s a great moment, and I think is the only song to have a sort of coda and a jazz hands ending.  

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen, who plays a comedy writer for television who has become dissatisfied and bitter about what he does — in his mind, he should be doing something meaningful in the world.  But as he sinks more and more into depression, and even contemplates suicide (the suicide attempt is both frightening and funny), he wanders around New York and into a rerun house where the Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup, is playing.  At first he is barely aware of the film, and then, the film catches him, as does the laughter of those around.  And he has an epiphany — what the Marx Brothers were doing on screen was nothing “serious.”  It had no greater meaning (it wasn’t really comedy as social criticism), but it had got him out of the prison of his mind and its maddening isolation.  He was part of a group sharing a laugh.  With all the absurdity of life, one could despair, or one could laugh, and not some sarcastic, bitter snicker, but a genuine and jubilant belly laugh.  And that epiphany sees his character through.  A character who throughout the film was wont to see only the worst possible scenario, or the worst possible interpretation of any data he might receive, was now saying yes to life.  And the ending of that film, one filled with a fair amount of angst and regret, is truly joyous and celebratory.  

A Funny Thing Happened... does much the same thing.  It has no “moral.”  It is all about celebration, and all about taking some old, tired material (the very title is a play on the hackneyed stand-up line, “A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre tonight, friends…”) and making it fresh.  And that makes it a truly valuable movie (and play).  Does this mean we ignore serious topics and pain and suffering in the world?  No, we should be angry at that, and weep.  But a movie like this, or Duck Soup, reminds us that pain and suffering is not everything in the world.  And if we find ourselves in a pickle, and wonder what we’re going to do — we can always think of the clever slave in this play, who refused to be labeled by others, but was always in the process of recreating himself, and say “What would Pseudolus do?”  It may not offer a solution to our problems, but likely will get us to laugh, and that will give us some room to find a solution, and not be defined by our troubles. 


Lent (Day 13) — more on “Happiness Attracts”

Continuing along in Ch. 3 of James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth, “Happiness Attracts,” we encounter 3 more serious reasons for good humor:

4: Humor speaks truth to power.  This is the job of humor for many stand-up comics, especially those with a political bent.  It is very easy to get caught up in the serious positions of political power, but to lose sight of the bigger picture.  In poking fun at the powerful, we release their power over us, but also let the powerful see another way as well.  He tells a story of a woman in a hospital who humorously responded to a bishop’s unctuous remarks, and that led to the two having a long friendship, for her humor got past his position to the man inside.

5: Humor shows courage — here we get the humor of martyrs, as they bravely go to their deaths.  Though some of the stories are funny, this section seemed the most half-baked.  I think that humor shows generosity, and that generosity demonstrates a bit of courage, for we are saying to our tormentors that we don’t hate them (and that’s a big order), and that we don’t accept the situation which suggest that they hold power over us.

6: Humor deepens our relationship with God — reflecting on the idea of God as parent, and how parents often play with their kids, Martin suggests we should imagine a playful God.  That is a rather strong theological statement, and a powerful one.  For with a playful God, it is easier to imagine a loving figure, rather than a stern figure of judgment.  He quotes an Indian Jesuit as saying, “Look at God looking at you…. and smiling.”  That’s a powerful statement as well.  In some ways it reminds me of the Morning Offering of my youth, which is a prayer of submission — I’m ready to do my part.  But behind that I’m ready to do my part is the idea that my part is important.  And that fits in with the idea of God looking at each of us and smiling.  


Lent (Day 12) — Happiness Attracts…

We now move on to Chapter 3 of James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth, “Happiness Attracts: 11 1/2 Serious Reasons for Good Humor.”  Having already suggested that in editing out humor, or in unduly emphasizing a serious gravity, one may miss the point about God and the blessings of God, Martin, in this chapter aims to provide reasons for humor, why it is necessary.  The subtitle, I’m guessing, is supposed to be a playful reworking of the “(5 or 6 or 10) Proofs for the Existence of God.”  By making it an odd number, and then a fraction too, Martin makes the phrase more memorable.  

His first reason is the title of the chapter, “Happiness Attracts,” a phrase he takes from Archbishop Dolan of New York.  The idea here being that Christians are supposed to be spreading the “good news” (gospel) of Christ, and that such a positive and optimistic message (that life wins out over death, that death is no end) should be viewed positively. Who wants to be part of a group of miserable guys?  

His second reason is that Humor helps one be more humble.  Humor short-circuits our ego, at least for a moment, and allows us to share a laugh with another, and not be so caught up in our heads.  There is also the danger, if one is in any position of authority, to think the matter is all about oneself.  Such an attitude cuts one off from one’s fellows.  There is a good reason that pride is seen as such an awful sin by Catholic theologians and writers.  For instead of the message being about God in the world, or love in the world, or how people are all brothers and sisters, in some way, the message is all about “me” and how clever I am.  At several points in the book so far, he has used the humor of John XXIII, Pope from 1958-1963.  John was a fat, old, and not very handsome man.  He often poked fun at himself, which not only put others at ease, but made him approachable in ways that his predecessor, Pius XII, a man who always looked serious and somewhat imperious, never did.  In this section, he also quotes G.K. Chesterton, who is the author of the line about the angels being able to fly because they take themselves lightly.  

His third is that humor can show us reality.  Not all reality is humorous, but we often make the mistake, when we try to sound serious and profound, of getting caught up in the tone, and thinking that our pronouncements are reality.  No system of belief, and no system of thought can capture all of reality.  There will always be mystery beyond that.  Humor sometimes allows a glimpse of something else, something all our systems miss, and it can be used to foreground the very intellectual edifice we’ve created and confused for reality.  And so, while we will continue to use our systems to try to make sense of the world, we can also be aware that such systems are always in flux, ever-changing, as we get new information, and be open to the mystery.  

Humor allows us to be aware of the limits of our vision and our thinking, and invites us to not get so caught up in ourselves and our way of thinking that we don’t see or appreciate the world around us, which can never be fully encompassed by any of us.  


Lent (Day 11) — more on “Joy is a Gift from God”

Pointing to the Christian message, and to Christ as its messenger, Martin suggests that the message itself is a foolish one (if looked at from the perspective of the world.  Martin points to figures like John XXIII and St. Philip Neri, who were both quite humorous (Neri was often downright silly), and St. Francis of Assisi, who was very much a “fool for Christ.”  A lot of their humor was of a self-deprecating kind, which Martin clearly likes — for self-deprecating humor helps to put one’s companion at ease, and to see past one’s position and see a person instead.  It’s a way of building community, and of encouraging a loving attitude.  In this final part of the chapter, Martin also looks at humor and silliness as part of the Zen tradition, and the Sufi tradition of Islam.  

What is it that humor does?  It short circuits, at least for a time, the censor we have within.  That censor, the agent of our ego [our public selves], is worried about how we look in the world, and feels that humor and silliness diminish our position in the world.  But humor gets around that, breaks through various categories which we build around us and even within us, and offers a moment of “aha,” as well as “haha.”  

Humor also works best in community, and that helps us forget, for a moment, the story we tell ourselves all the time (and which others remind us of a lot of the time) that we are alone, that we are separate, one from the other.  In a room full of people laughing, those boundaries we set (and which we set for others) are temporarily broken down.  For a moment, we can see a different way, one of community and not isolation, of a world of promise and joy and not one of hardship and despair.  I once heard the statement — “the Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”  The opposite of that would be that we find ourselves overcome with the force of gravity, whether we mean the pull of the earth on our bodies, or we take ourselves too seriously.  


Lent (Day 10) — A sad saint is a sad kind of saint

I very much enjoyed the opening pages of chapter 3: “Joy is a Gift from God.”  The heading here is a quotation from St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists (he was an inveterate pamphleteer), and of the deaf, and after whom the Salesians (founded by St. John Bosco) are named.  This echoes a statement of St. Teresa of Avila’s (patron saint of those suffering from headaches, and chess players, among other things, and a famous Catholic mystic) also quoted in this opening:  “A sad nun is a bad nun.”  Martin also quotes a statement attributed to St. Teresa, but not found in any of her writings, “From somber devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”  

I guess I was especially moved by the opening of this chapter for a couple of reasons: 1) Growing up Catholic, I thought the point was somehow making connection with the divine, and humor always seemed to me a way to cut through the rigid frames and definitions to something beyond (good poetry does the same) — I am wont to say that “I live for revelation,” and revelation to me often comes through humor, that, if done generously, includes rather than excludes, and shows a glimmer of an ultimate truth, at least a truth beyond our rational understanding;  2) Martin says something that I hadn’t thought of, but really struck a chord — one can view the saints as patrons (e.g. St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet — direct all your prayers about the slow moving, too often freezing or crashing Internet Explorer to Isidore), or one can view them as companions.  To view a saint as a companion is to adopt a saint as an older and wiser friend, one who can help one reflect on an issue, or to live in some better way.  But it is more than that.  For having a saint as a companion means that we can, in some ways, see ourselves in the company of saints, which points to our own saintliness with all rights, privileges and responsibilities appropriate to such a station.  And humor helps us see the saints as human, and relatable — once we can relate to the saints, we no longer think of them as separate and beyond our ken and abilities, but see them as figures to emulate, which means we have work to do (we don’t have an excuse).  That’s a pretty powerful idea.

Martin said something else in this section that resonates with a statement before about heresy.  In talking about the dour-faced saints we may think of (and St. Bernadette, whose photos show her as a dour figure — remember that 19th c. photographs always show dour faced figures), Martin notes that such thinking “is not simply an aesthetic fault, but a theological one, with serious implications for Christians.”  It tends to dehumanize the saints, and by making them other than us, keeps us from joining them.  It cuts us off from some deeper truth.  And that’s a powerful statement.