Have you ever considered how awkward it would be to try to explain the name of the color salmon to an actual salmon? The fish would look at it and look back at you confused and say, “You know we’re not that color, right?” And you’d have to look right back and say, “Yeah… not on the outside…”
Humor, the ability to make people laugh and even to bring lightness to a dark situation, is a superpower. (That’s why it’s one of my top three values.) Think about it. Someone is feeling one way, thinking about whatever they’re thinking about, and then you say a few words and all of a sudden they’re thinking and feeling in a completely new and unexpected way. Humor has the power to make a sudden and drastic change to a person’s state of consciousness.
But just like the word “change” does not contain within its meaning any hint as to the direction of the transformation taking place, the mere presence of humor says nothing about the direction in which its psychic force will be applied. Because it’s a fact that, inherent to the concept of a joke is that there is always someone or something that the joke is “on.” The butt of the joke. Even in the case of wordplay, the butt of the joke is the listener’s pre-joke assumptions about how words are typically used, often leading to consternation or at least an initial feeling of surprise.
My favorite comedian, Hari Kondabolu, acknowledges this truth and bemoans its less desirable consequences when he says of comedians who typically use their skill set to make fun of marginalized groups (a practice often called “punching down”), “Humor is a superpower, so why are you using your superpower for evil?”
Unsaid in all of this is the basic fact that humor is a deeply relational phenomenon. Jokes are meant to be told and heard. They have the power to bring people together or to push people apart. Whichever of these options a would-be comedian chooses will therefore reveal something about their underlying relational orientation, which ultimately says something about their relationship with love.
This weekend I was participating in a workshop with my fiancée designed to help us create our very own personalized wedding ceremony. Having the quirky sense of humor and outlook on social institutions that I do, my first stab at writing my vows felt just like a stab to my partner’s heart. When she bravely revealed her vulnerability to me, my nervous system reacted with fear, which could have manifested in my behavior as defensiveness. Fortunately, my mindfulness practice has sensitized me to the presence of fear so that I can still choose to respond with love, which to me is the only vow worth making.
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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.