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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Lighten Up: The Goodness of Humor and Humility

Lynn Underwood

Laughing, joking, and not taking ourselves too seriously is humble and healthy.

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
August 18, 2016

Humor is a highly underrated part of our spiritual lives. Humor can give us new perspectives on our own foibles, and even what we see as our strengths. It can help us see others in a new light. It can lighten the heart.

Humor in What We Read, Watch, and Listen To

One of my favorite authors for bedtime reading is Terry Pratchett. He is often irreverent, yet insightful, creative, and funny. He writes about Discworld, a fictional world filled with characters that allow us to see the humor, pathos, and ethical quandaries in our own lives. A character in one of Pratchett’s novels says: “It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.”1 The truth hidden in humor can speak to us in ways that exhortations cannot. In Pratchett’s novel and the movie made from it, Going Postal, former criminal Moist von Lipwig is assigned by the benign dictator to revamp the dying postal service. In wonderful ways, the novel pokes fun at the intensity of stamp collectors, the role of uniforms, and how we decide that something is of value. I come away from the book enlightened, with a lighter heart.

Parks and Recreation is a television comedy show about governmental bureaucracy and interpersonal relationships in work settings, set in a small town in Indiana. It would have been easy for sophisticated writers from the coasts to make fun of small town America. Yet, artfully, the show pulls us in to feel sympathy for the characters and their situations, even as we laugh out loud. We can see ourselves in their situations and reactions, but also have a better understanding of those who we think are not like us. There are definitely ways of being funny that do not support us spiritually: humor can make fun of others, can put people down who are not like us, can be disrespectful of various religious views of God. But the fact that this kind of humor exists doesn’t detract from the value of delightful humor.

Bill Watterson, who is from the town I live in, finds humor in our religious thinking and behavior. His cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes” deals with interpersonal, philosophical, political, and religious issues. The boy and his stuffed tiger grapple with the world, trying to pin it down, and between them they bring out some of its humor.

Calvin (the boy): Do you believe in the Devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?
Hobbes (the tiger): I’m not sure man needs the help.
Calvin: You just can’t talk to animals about these things.2

Calvin, in another place, comments, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”3

Some of the funniest jokes about religion that I have heard come from Jewish people. Their own jokes about their religion and culture are best when told by someone on the inside. And I so often hear jokes about one religion that could be equally applied to another. The minister who was shipwrecked on the desert island was rescued years later, and someone noticed two church buildings, one on the other side of the island from where he had set up camp. When asked about the church on the other side, he said it was the church that he “didn’t go to.”  When we hear this joke, which can be framed using different kinds of people, it reminds us of the powerful pull of reaction, defining ourselves by what we are not, in religious contexts.

“When we lighten up, we don’t take ourselves so seriously; we have a more accurate view of how important and effective we are.”

Jokes with religious themes help us to open our minds to oversimplifications of thinking. I had a cartoon on my bulletin board with God shown as an old man with a beard on a cloud with a laptop, and the caption read, “Oops, I hit ‘reply all.’” When we envision asking for things in prayer, and envision God’s response, and how that God relates to us all simultaneously, it is just impossible to grasp. We can laugh at this cartoon, and in the process acquire a more open understanding.

The Poet’s Wit

A favorite poet of mine, Billy Collins, often uses humor in his poetry, and here he weaves it into spiritual exploration:

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

By Billy Collins4

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

This poem can provoke all sorts of responses, no matter what our religious beliefs. The humor in it allows us to interact with it in a more open way. It leads us to ask questions of our own assumptions about God, our religious principles, and how we envision our relationship with God in our days.

Another of Collins’s poems reflects on the incongruous use of “OMG” in everyday conversation:

“Oh, My God!”

by Billy Collins5

Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.

“Sometimes the best response is hearty laughter.”

“Lighten up,” we tell each other and sometimes ourselves. When we lighten up, we don’t take ourselves so seriously; we have a more accurate view of how important and effective we are. I find myself voicing these feelings by making funny comments in the midst of long strategic planning meetings. We do not know everything. We are not totally in control. The world is full of so much that is beyond our grasp. This is a spiritual insight, one that can help us to realize our right relationship with God and other people. Sometimes the best response is hearty laughter.