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Venne_Woman_and_a_jester public domainRecently I’ve come across several blogs that use humor (the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, tending toward the ludic, the whimsical, the carnivalesque) to great effect. And I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. But it’s made me realize how serious my blog has come to sound, and to question that.

I’m not sure I want to change it. But perhaps I need to diffuse it now and again. For I fully realize all this seriousness is seriously undercut by the great jest played on all of us: we really don’t know what the hell we’re doing and if any of this (me, you, life, blogging, etc.) matters at all.

Still, Serious is my milieu. I feel more comfortable swimming there. With Serious I joyously jump head first into the deep end. I do backflips from the high dive. With Humor I test the pool with my toe. I find the steps and go down slowly. I keep my head above the water.

Perhaps that’s why people who know me well comment on my “gentle sense of humor”. I used to take that as a compliment, meaning “not unkind” or “unassuming.” Not loud or obvious.

But it could just as well mean “unassertive,” or even just plain “wimpy.”

Given my pool metaphor, this could be true. I am shy. I don’t tend to flaunt or assert myself in crowds or public conversations. You would never call me the life of the party. I don’t leave people in stitches or elicit belly laughs. I stand in the shadows. I observe. I take note. And occasionally I let loose a zinger or a well-placed (gentle) barb.

80Three_Young_Women_Making_Music_with_a_Jester public domainI tease. I poke. I play. At the edges.

It’s the way I diffuse all the seriousness that comes more naturally to me. Playing with things—-people, ideas, words, life.

Humor, after all, is the great diffuser. It reminds us not to take ourselves, or each other, or life itself so seriously all the time.

It lightens, softens, disperses, deflects the serious side of life that can, quite literally, crush us under its weight if we’re not careful.

That is humor’s great gift, why it is so needed, and so welcomed. Everyone loves humor. Serious, not so much.

Humor makes you feel good. It lights up your endorphins. It puts a smile on your face and a giggle in your heart. It can even make cancer cells go into remission, or so they say.

Serious is not so warmly welcomed. It’s viewed as suspect and makes you wary. You frown and say things like “Say what?” and “Get outa here.” It gives you heartburn and indigestion. Your head starts spinning, your eyes glaze over. You start looking for the door.

An Allegory of Folly Quentin_Massys_030 public domainBut mostly, for those who are serious, it’s just plain risky.

Serious is like streaking down your old high school hallways naked. Humor is safer. It wears a helmet and shoulder pads and carries a hockey stick. People back away. They let you pass.

Being Serious is like burying yourself in sand with only your head sticking up. Anyone can ride by with a large stick or sharp sword and lop it off. Humor often carries that sword.

Which brings us to the dark side of humor and its soft underbelly. Humor can be a weapon. And it can hurt.

But more often what humor, the great diffuser, is diffusing or deflecting, is our own insecurities and uncertainties, our fear of the unknown and unanswerable. Humor is a way to keep people at arm length, unsure how to take us, afraid to challenge us. It can help us avoid the serious stuff and make others less likely to talk seriously to us.

Humor also can be a cop-out. It allows us to say, if challenged: But I was only kidding!

If people don’t know whether to take us seriously or not, they might tend to back down, back off, pull their punches, reserve judgment. And they may do so because they want to avoid that zinger or well-placed and not-so-gentle barb we are prone to fling when challenged. They don’t want to become the brunt of our jokes.

Van_Mieris_I,_Frans_van_-_Woman_before_the_Mirror_(detail)_-_c__1670The best humor though, is serious stuff.

It isn’t used to harm others or to protect ourselves, but to expose ourselves to critical examination.

Humor holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly, including all our faults and foibles. It makes us laugh at ourselves, our families, our society, our leaders, our politics, our lives, in a way that’s helpful and healing.

It reveals the hypocrisy and vanity, the pettiness and meanness, in a fun way. We feel the sharpness when it strikes too close to home, but we laugh anyway.

And by laughing at our faults, we are more likely, perhaps, to find ways to be and do better.

That’s what I love about humor. Being able to laugh at myself. It’s so freeing!

Being buried in the sand up to your ears is no picnic!

I keep thinking about that head-lopping image I used earlier. That poor helpless fool, buried up to her ears in all that serious sand she finds so important, and WOP! There goes her head bouncing down the beach.

That’s me! My head bouncing down that beach, blood squirting everywhere, and I’m thinking, “My God, What did I do? Why did I stick my head out like that? Why the f— did I take myself so seriously?”

But then I have to laugh. Because I realize: This is just a metaphor!

Right about then, another head comes rolling along, the head-lopper’s head.

“What happened to you!” I ask.

“Seems I was taking myself way too seriously too!” he replies.

Then we both have a good, serious laugh, rolling down the beach together.