09 March 2016

Another Consequence of Fear: Loss of Humor

Blog editor's note: Consequence magazine—a publication that regularly explores aspects of culture and war—recently featured a series of non-fiction "flash-essays" by literary magazine editors. The essays ranged from approximately 50 to 300 words each. The theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, regarded "the consequences of fear." Installments in the series included humanity, callousness; parsing texts; knowledge and compassion; cloaking; and "the story of our time."

Using the theme as a personal writing prompt, I offer some quick scratches of my own:


A Consequence of Fear: Loss of Humor
By Randy Brown

A college-era friend of mine once gave me this dipstick check: After graduation, when Joe and I were each single and living in different cities, we kept each other sane via monthly marathon phone sessions. Once, after I had delivered a long monologue involving a general lack of pay or sex or happiness, he asked, "Yeah ... But are you still funny?"

That cracked me up.

The phrase became shorthand for quickly assessing if the other guy was really hurting, or just kvetching. It proved to be a good self-assessment tool, too. Whenever I found myself without a sense of humor, at work or at home, I knew things had gotten serious—maybe too serious. I could then stop digging myself any deeper, and start the work of filling in the emotional potholes.

It's like that Catch-22 about sanity: "If you're sane enough to ask yourself if you're crazy, you're probably sane." Maybe, if you can still ask yourself if you still have a sense of humor, you're sane. If you can't, it's time to regroup. Maybe even seek professional help.

Comedy is a high-stakes game, I know—always one step away from tragedy. No, I'm not advocating bottling it all up, or always viewing life through Groucho glasses. Graveyards are littered with jokers, after all, who kept their pains all to themselves. Remember Freddy Prinze Sr. Remember Robin Williams. Remember the punch line about the depressed clown:

"But, Doctor, I AM Pagliacci!'"

Alas, poor Yorick.

The physiological engine of all humor is surprise. Or, more accurately, the recognition and relief that a new thing isn't going to kill us. Don't believe me? Play peek-a-boo with an infant. First, he startles. He makes eye contact with his mother. Mom's calming presence (I'm assuming that you haven't chosen to experiment on a stranger's child, and that parents are nearby) says it's OK for him to laugh.

Bottom line: The kid learns to laugh by learning that you're not a mountain lion. That you're not a danger. That you're supposed to be funny.

After 15 years of war, we seem danger-close to losing our capacity for collective good humor. Our pockets are empty. Our skins are stretched thin. We are no longer surprised. Neither are we entertained. Instead, we're making jokes at each other's expenses: Playground bully jokes. Vulgar, short-fingered jokes. Racial jokes. Meanwhile, 9-1-1 is a joke. Our social fabric is torn, our civil bonds broken. We seem no longer capable of laughing with each other. We're laughing at each other.

We are, in short, no longer funny.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He is the poetry editor of Military Experience & the Arts' As You Were literary journal. Brown authored the poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire" (Middle West Press, 2015). Also in 2015, he received the inaugural Madigan Award for humorous military writing from Negative Capability Press, Mobile, Ala. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com.

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