Gallows humour is a basic human instinct. We have been laughing in the face of danger since the first troglodyte came face to face with a sabre-tooth tiger and giggled nervously to avoid shitting all over his favourite sloth-skin loincloth. Gallows humour makes us brave just like swearing helps us endure more pain. No shit.
Freud, in a 1927 essay titled Humour (Der Humor) says about gallows humour; “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”
Laughter is the shortest social distance between two people.
Humour in the face of the dire circumstances is a natural human instinct. History overflows with side-splitting examples of it. Murderer James French suggested the headline, “French Fries” to announce his execution by electric chair. At his public execution William Palmer looked at the gallows trapdoor and asked, “Is it safe?” Arriving in emergency after being shot by John Hinkley, Ronald Reagan came up with the knee-slapper, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” When Bob Hope’s wife asked where he would like to be buried he deadpanned, “Surprise me.” When W.C Fields, a lifetime atheist, was asked why he was reading the Bible on his deathbed, he replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.” Groucho Marx said, “Either I’m dead or my watch has stopped.” At Thermopylae, when the Persian God-King Xerxes told the gallant confederacy of Free Greeks and Spartans that the Persian arrows would be so numerous they would block out the sun, Spartan King Leonides shrugged and said, “Well then we shall fight in the shade.”
Spike Milligan displayed a typically flash of what might be termed post-gallows humour when he arranged to have the Irish phrase, “Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite” chiseled into his tombstone; “I told you I was ill.” On the 29th of October 1618 Sir Walter Raleigh looked at the ax that was to separate his head from his body and he from his life and and mused, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.” Had his fatal haircut come but few years later, Sir Walter could have been resurrected by a bracing blast of smoke up the back of his breeches. Blowing smoke up the rectum was to become a routine and much respected medical procedure in the late 17th Century. But that is a puff up the bum for another day.
Take heart. In this messy business called life we are not alone.
One of the most crushing emotions experienced by those in psychologically toxic, threatening or conflicted circumstances is a feeling of isolation – a debilitating all-pervading sense of loneliness. When it is not cruel, and indeed it can be, humour is embracing and inclusive. It is living proof of empathy and of understanding. Don’t we all have a controlling battle-axe auntie? Don’t we all have a narcissistic sibling? We might not all have a perpetually banjaxed two-pot screamer of a flamboyantly camp uncle, but chances are we know someone who does. We see in a shared smile the reflection of our own life and behaviour. It is not always a flattering reflection. We cannot help but see much of our own human frailty echoed in the experience of others.
Empathy is the key that unlocks our feelings of isolation to relieve the deep loneliness that all of us are fated to experience at one time or another. Laughter is proof that we are not alone in our suffering. Having seen that we are not alone we can no longer feel quite so alone. This is one of the most important functions of Metaphorical Therapy: To help you understand that you are never truly isolated or alone. We are all in deep shit together. The feeling that most often follows the insight that we are together in this messy business called life, is typically one of blessed overwhelming relief. Our lives may be shaped quite differently, but the psychopathological issues and problems that plague human relationships recur in remarkably similar shapes. Understanding these patterns is the first step on the metaphorical therapeutic bridge to peace, contentment and a sustainably healthy state of mind. Life is a joke. Occasionally it’s a cruel joke. But it is a joke nonetheless.
You can read the first part of this here: The healing power of Humour – Part 1
What do you think about the humour as a healing power?
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