Hope, Humor and Forgiveness: A Global Survey

Chapter 5

Hope, Humor and Forgiveness:

A Global Survey

Part 1:  Towards a Philosophy of Humor and Forgiveness

Laughter?  Does anyone ever care about laughter?  I mean real laughter – beyond joking, jeering, ridicule.  Laughter – delight unbounded, delight delectable, delight of delights…

– Milan  Kundera (1)


My single peal of laughter

Startles heaven and earth. – Zen phrase (2)

Anyone trying to help in a situation of serious conflict would do well to have a good sense of humor.  Without good humor, a meddler is likely to be too confrontational or neglectful about sensitive and crucial issues.  We will find that good humor is related to the virtues of hope, courage and patience.

To be really effective, this chapter needs a running joke. But the topic is so vast and largely uncharted that researching it has the character of a wild goose chase.  But is this a goose that we really want to catch, if we could?  And if we did catch it, what would we do with it?  These are some of the absurd questions that populate the field of humor in distracting numbers.  No, there is no running joke as yet capable of encircling the relationship between humor and forgiveness.  Lacking a running joke, we shall have to content ourselves with a limping joke. Indeed, this chapter has something of the quality of stubbing one’s toe and lamely attempting to make the most of it.  Perhaps, though, this is just to the point:  the idea of humans forgiving each other is an inherently awkward concept, and we shouldn’t get too critical of our own and others’ bumbling attempts to be of good cheer in the face of the tragedies of life.

Indeed, I did chase many wild geese to compile the material of this study.  Like any jolly good fellow, I first set out to hear what my various friends would have to say when I asked them, “Tell me your favorite funny story on forgiveness and [whatever topic was the impetus of my contacting this particular person]…”  But be careful what you wish for, because you might actually get it.  The result of my excursions into humor was something like the story of the goose with the golden feathers:  many of the stories I so diligently chased, I ended up getting stuck to, and they dragged me cumulatively to a fate I have as yet to comprehend.  But if it is anything like the Brother’s Grimm story “The Golden Goose,”  we can be like Simpleton, who through his hospitality to the old gray dwarf gains a golden goose that becomes the object of greed for 3 sisters, a parson and sexton, and two farmers.   These individuals become so attached to their objects of greed that they are glued to the goose who then becomes such a hilarious spectacle that it makes the king’s daughter laugh, who has never laughed before.  And this, dear readers, is why the king’s daughter married Simpleton.  So as I have become stuck to the humorous stories to come, I hope they will get stuck to you.

It is not hard to imagine why so little has been written on the role humor plays in forgiveness:  forgiveness is serious business and humor is an elusive phenomenon.  Combining the two would seem like risky business.  The combination of forgiveness and comedy would seem even riskier.  The serious quality of forgiveness and the playful quality of humor might seem ill-suited, but appearances can deceive.

Forgiveness originally appears as a religious value.  Humor originally appears as an issue of wit and social manners.  Perhaps, as Conrad Hyers points out (3), the solemnity generally associated with religion makes laughter and merriment seem impious.  In many circumstances this would be true, but not in all circumstances.  For instance, it would be unseemly to make a joke during a funeral service, but an amusing story at a memorial service, told in the spirit of friendship, might be just the right thing.  As humor can help with mourning between friends, so humor can help us mend the social fabric with forgiveness.

Humor forms a broader class of phenomena than jokes or comedy.   Comedy is a genre of story-telling and drama.  Comedy involves humor, not in the formal literary technique of making a story or drama, but in the comic inspiration.  Humor not only plays a role in the inspiration of comedy, but also permeates our ordinary, informal, everyday lives.  People create humor with each other using comments, questions or actions that serve as pleasant surprises, surprises that punctuate the otherwise boring and tedious course of common life tasks.  Daily humor is embedded in the context of the story of everyday life, serving as the punch line that helps make our day.  Comedy more formally sets the context by telling the story (a joke or comic drama), with the humor being the pleasant surprises that punctuate the story throughout, especially at the end.

Much of humor in everyday life uses methods that are also used in comedy, such as puns, nonsequiturs, slapstick and other foolishness. As imaginative and playful as it is, humor uses everything at its disposal in any possible way.  Humor spans the acting range from A (let’s say the wettest buffoonery) to Z (the driest irony).

Humor tends to work in the moment and be diminished in the retelling.  On the other hand, there are things that happen in life that are not funny at the time, but become humorous in the telling.  Sometimes we even foreshadow this by saying “Someday I will be able to laugh about this.”

Story-telling and humor share the common element of surprise.  The word “story”, coming from “history”, originally meant “learning by enquiry.”  If there is no surprise involved, if the meaning of the account is apparent from the first, then there is no need for enquiry and no learning results.  It’s like hearing a joke with a punch line we already know — there is no surprise and we are not amused in the same way as when the joke is fresh.

Humor and play are associated with experiences that are enjoyable.  Humor is a form of play in which something funny occurs.  We experience humor as an unexpected pleasure, a pleasant surprise.  Humor has a cognitive element (the dissonance of the unexpected), an emotional element (enjoyment), and a behavioral element (smiling, laughter). Henri Bergson pointed to the behavioral element of humor as demonstration of humor’s social function.  Smiling serves as a social initiation and means of bonding; laughter serves as a social liberation and display of folly.

To define the proper uses of humor in the endeavor of forgiveness, it would be helpful to find ways to detect and encourage a healthy and friendly sense of humor.  Good stories and clear thinking will help us do this.  At each step we should be careful to distinguish humor that helps others from self-serving humor at the expense of others.

There are many theories of humor, including the superiority theory, the relief theory, the incongruence theory, and the solidarity theory. The superiority theory assumes that humor serves to advance the humorist at the expense of the “butt of the joke.”  The relief theory assumes that humor serves to stimulate and release tension in the individual and society by mixing things up, activating people while ultimately providing a positive experience that serves as a release from the tension created by the suspense of the story.  The incongruence theory assumes that humor messes with people’s minds, surprising them in subtle or challenging ways.  The solidarity theory assumes that humor serves to bring people together, introducing and bonding them in a common cause, or for no cause, but simply because we share the ludicrous condition of being human.

I generally assume that humor is releasing and challenges our minds.  The real debate in this chapter is between the superiority theory and the solidarity theory.  By prevailing against cruelty, good humor serves to bring people together in solidarity while bad humor serves to set some elite in superior opposition to an unsophisticated mass (those “in” the joke versus those “out” of the joke).  In order to demonstrate that humor can be serious business, I will define a solidarity theory in contrast to a superiority theory.   In the next chapter I will apply the humor of solidarity in its various forms to personal healing, to inter-personal, inter-group and inter-national conflicts, and generally to our common human predicament.

Now let us consider the background of the theories of humor as solidarity versus humor as superiority.


“There has got to be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief.

– Bob Dylan

Humor is part of human imagination.  Ever since Aristotle defined humans as “rational animals capable of laughter,” the role of humor in human evolution has been a legitimate, if largely neglected, topic of philosophical inquiry.  Humor involves the ability to perceive extra possibilities in a situation:   “Humor is an essential means of teasing one into the recognition of the variety of perspectives permitted by the totality of existing things.”  Enjoying humor together is a universal means of establishing rapport and loyalty.  Many writers have commented that it is hard to imagine loving someone without good humor, while others point out that harmonious social relations depend on easy humor.

But solidarity is always in relation to something against which we stand together.  Ethnic humor establishes solidarity between those in on the joke against the group excluded by the joke, those who get the joke versus those gotten by it.  This kind of humor has an intrinsic flaw in that the solidarity it generates is fragile.  Humor which dehumanizes other human beings is vulnerable to being exposed in a negative light.  As the ethnic joke attempts to expose the limitation of the ethnic, whether it be an intellectual limitation (stupid jokes) or a moral limitation (conniving jokes), the limitation of the ethnic joke stereotyping is always subject to exposure.

If we are going to band together as humans and die laughing at the expense of a common enemy, the best target to attack with humor is death.

Solidarity and Death

Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) thought that the established conventional wisdom of bourgeois Danish society of the 19th century had stifled serious ethical and religious discussion.  Humor seemed to him a means to liberate language so that serious ethical and religious issues could be addressed.  Whereas ethical issues tend to isolate people in their own individual accountability (such as the categorical imperative of Kant where each person is responsible for recreating the whole moral universe solely by means of individual effort),  humor tends to bring people together with the relief that all humans share in common their mortality.  But because the starting point of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the individual’s experience of existential guilt, Kierkegaard’s appreciation of humor tends to be introspective and ultimately impotent.  The philosophy of Charles Peguy (1873-1914), based in the experience of joy and the value of hope, provides a more reliable guide for appreciating the ultimate importance of humor.

One way to approach the relationship between the seriousness of forgiveness and the “not-seriousness” of humor is to consider the more general relationship between work and play.

Work and Play

Many of those who have studied and researched human development have concluded that play has a pivotal role in the development of cognitive, practical, social and emotional skills (7).  Work can be considered formalized play, play being the experimental activity of learning necessary for work-skill acquisition.

Many theorists of humor point out the essentially social nature of humor.  Humor helps us get along with people, make friends, and so on.  This view is supported by the research in developmental psychology on smiling and laughter.  That research shows that infants and young children use smiling and laughter to help regulate tension and social stimulation in order to prolong face-to-face interactions (8).  These behaviors and the skills involved in using them are important for children’s social, intellectual and emotional development (9).  The ability to manage social stimulation is related to one’s attention span and ability to learn.

The topic of the relationship between work and play has rich and vast philosophical implications, and many social theorists, including Freud, have explored this topic (work and love were Freud’s primary themes before love and death).   Seriousness and playfulness are both qualities and quantities.  As qualities they can be defined by the extremes of “dead serious” and “just playing” (mortal consequences versus no consequences).  But usually the two qualities are mixed in varying degrees, as can be seen in most products of the human imagination.  The beauty of many religious works of art testifies to the fact that imagination and solemnity can work together.  The consumer ethic itself demonstrates that playful, aesthetic considerations can have serious financial consequences:  automobiles often sell more on style than on safety or other practical considerations.

Perhaps no writer has better described the implications of the relationship between work and play than Charles Peguy in his Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue, written in 1911.  By describing the inter-play between work and play in a common domestic scene, Peguy provides the basis for understanding the virtue of hope.   Observing children helping their mother in the kitchen, Peguy notes that for young children work and play are so inter-mixed that they don’t distinguish the two.  All they know is the wondrous joy of being involved in life.  When considering the implications of this observation, Peguy writes:  “Hope also is she who enjoys herself all the time.” (10)

For Peguy children are literally the embodiment of hope.  Why does a father persistently work long hard hours, particularly in harsh cold winter conditions?  For his children, for the future of his children, for his children as future:  “And thinking about how his children will be in the future, he laughs, warms up, and goes about his work.” (11)

Peguy distinguishes the virtue of hope from the virtues of faith and charity.  Faith and charity are good habits of attitude and conduct, but they do not provide the motivating, spontaneous energy that hope brings.  Without hope even good habits grow tired.  Hope has no particular object because it brings life to everything.   Peguy’s vision of hope is so vivid that he even has God astonished by the hope that humans demonstrate:  “Hope, said God, this does astound me…That these poor children seeing all that goes on should believe that tomorrow will be better…” (12)

Robert Royal writes that Peguy’s passages of God’s astonished response to hope are unique in theological literature.  Royal’s appreciation of Peguy’s poetry articulates the relationships between hope and humor, play and ultimate seriousness:

As these passages show, Peguy’s stylistic sense for God’s voice is very sure.  It would be very easy to overplay this joking peasant Deity, or to fail by merely having God rehearse stale theological formulas. Peguy avoids the temptation to be both too cute and too predictable. His Deity is playful, and the game he is playing, though graced with humor, is too serious to be merely a reflection of any systematic schemes, however orthodox. (13)

Peguy’s work on hope is laced with humor and punctuated with laughter. He even describes the child Jesus as “the little fellow who laughed like a jewel.” (14) None of this is done with the least amount of sentimentality, but with the hard labor of a farmer tilling his soil.  Such hard work leads him to such uniquely revealing (and relieving) thoughts as:   “Fortunately saints are not jealous of each other.  That would be the last straw.  That would be a bit too much.” (15)

Peguy says that Hope is the Heart of God.  This is the main thing to keep in mind on the relationship between good humor and forgiveness — good humor is joyful and hope-filled in its vision.  Without hope, humor becomes desperate and despairing, turning towards the insensitive and cruel forms of bigotry, derision, sarcasm, mockery, spite, and so forth.  This is why the promotion of good humor becomes legitimately serious business.

As with all creations bound by time and timing, humor has its limits. But it is questionable whether these limits are categorical.  For instance, Kierkegaard in his Postscript, and those influenced by that work (such as Reinhold Niebuhr) exclude humor from the heart of religion.  For Niebuhr, humor has no place at the “holy of holies”, the Altar of God (16).   For Kierkegaard, the “exclusion zone” is repentance:

It might be said that repentance, for example, is a contradiction, ergo something comic, certainly not to the esthetic or to finite common sense, which are lower, or to the ethical, which has its power in this passion, or to abstraction, which is fantastic and thereby lower (it wanted to interpret as comic from this standpoint what was rejected as nonsense in the foregoing), but to the religious itself, which knows a remedy for it, a way out.  But this is not the case; the religious knows of no remedy for repentance that disregards repentance. (17)

It is true that there is no redemption, no “way out” of the burden of guilt, without repentance.  And certainly in the repentant response there is no room for thinking of wrong-doing as “funny.”  But if Hope is the Heart of God, then humor is close at hand, and can be a hand-maiden to repentance.  For there is a way out, which is forgiveness, which comes from the perspective of joy, celebration, and good humor.

The two Hasidic “laughter” stories in chapter two show how loving laughter can correct false humility in confessions.  In the larger picture, even a truly repentant response can take on comic significance.  For instance, consider the true story of Saint Callistus I:

Callistus was born in second-century Rome, the Christian slave of a Christian master.  Placed in charge of a Christian bank, he lost or misplaced all the Christian money.  He skipped town, but was caught and sentenced (by a civil court) to the treadmill.  Released by his merciful Christian creditors, Callistus started a brawl in a synagogue, blaming the Jews for his financial embarrassment.  For this offense, he was condemned to the dreadful salt mines of Sardinia.  Released by claiming (falsely) that his name had been inadvertently omitted from an amnesty list, he returned to Rome and was hired by Pope Zephyrinus to supervise the papal cemetery.  Eighteen years later, Callistus succeeded Zephyrinus as pontiff.  A man who knew something about guilt and rehabilitation, Callistus ruled that penitent sinners, even murderers, fornicators, and adulterers, were welcome in church.  He also formally recognized the many shocking liaisons between Christian widows and Christian slaves as legal marriages.  This led to schism, and riot, in the course of which the forgiving slave-convict-pope was thrown down a well to his heavenly reward. (18)

This rendition of Callistus’ biography makes him sound like a true life Jonah, the mythic prophet who runs away from God, only to be comically used by fate to fulfill his prophetic purpose.   Perhaps during the course of this saga Callistus thought “someday I will be able to laugh about this.”  And perhaps someday we will be able to laugh together with him.

Hope, Humor and Survival

Hope and humor are important for survival under difficult circumstances.  People who can imagine no future for themselves give up; under extreme circumstances this can lead to death.  Viktor Frankl is most specific in this regard when speaking of survival in the concentration camp:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.  It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.  I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site (in the concentration camp) to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we should promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. (19)

The use of humor to imagine a future after liberation is an intriguing definition of hope.

The use of humor as an aid to survive difficult or extreme circumstances is not limited to western culture.  In Custer Died for your Sins, Vine Deloria writes of Native American Indian humor:

For centuries before the white invasion, teasing was a method of control of social situations by Indian people.  Rather than embarrass members of the tribe publicly, people used to tease individuals they considered out of step with the consensus of tribal opinion.  In this way egos were preserved and disputes within the tribe of a personal nature were held to a minimum. (20)

When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive. (21)

This role of humor seems to be a cultural universal.  Indeed, humor, story-telling, gift-giving and forgiveness are related anthropological phenomena.   A good joke has many characteristics in common with the tradition of gift-giving in pre-market economies, as has been delineated by the psycholinguist Jonathan Miller, who makes explicit reference in this regard to Marcel Mauss’ seminal work on the anthropology of gift-giving (22).  In much of social life, jokes are offered free of charge, as though the ancient coinage of language has in some ways survived outside of the exchange system of the market-economy.  Good humor as a gift can be perceived as a peace offering, as a chance for forgiveness.  Good humor can be one of those “small acts of civility” that make the difference on our pilgrimage to forgiveness.  As Jerome A. Miller points out, in contrast to the economy of consumption and competition, good humor establishes an economy of celebration. (23)

Reciprocity in humor and gift-giving is analogous to reciprocity in forgiveness.  Just as forgiveness is accomplished with the repentant response of the forgiven, so humor is accomplished with the appreciation of the recipient.  Humor functions socially:  humor does not live unless it is appreciated.  The same is true of gift-giving and forgiveness.

There are traditions that relate humor to the ultimate concerns addressed by religion.  For instance, the following story from the Jewish tradition makes humor a defining characteristic of paradise:

A rabbi is in a market when the prophet Elijah appears to him.  The rabbi is naturally excited and respectful.  He begins a conversation with the prophet, and at one point, he asks, “Is there any Jew in the market here who is destined to play an important part in the World to Come?

Elijah looks around and answers, “No!  I don’t see anyone who would qualify.”

Just then two men appear and Elijah holds up his hand.

“Wait, here are two who will do so!”

Then he disappears.  The rabbi turns to the two men and inquires: “What are you?  What do you do for a living?”

One answers:  “We are merrymakers.  We seek to make people happy when they are gloomy, to make peace where there are quarrels.  This we do by making people laugh.” (24)

There are many ways in which humor can speak to our common human condition.  The fact that we are limited creatures, suspended awkwardly between the realm of angels and the world of animals, makes us by nature prone to the proddings of humor.  For good humor, death is ultimately the butt of the joke.  We live and laugh at the expense of death.  Pascal’s wager can be made into a story with a humorous twist:

A local free thinker, a professed atheist, reaches the age of 70.  That year, on Yom Kippur, he shows up in the shul and is observed in fervent prayer throughout the service.

The shammes (sexton) sidles up to him during a break in the prayer.  “Yonkel,” he observes, “what are you doing here?  For so many years you have told everyone you don’t believe in God?”

“True,” the atheist rejoins, “but let me ask you.  Suppose I was wrong?” (25)

Humorous twists can provide profound insights, as when the student asks the rabbi where God can be found, and is answered that God can be found wherever God is welcome.  The shift from location to attitude serves a theological purpose.  Similarly, the ironic saying that life is too long for comfort and too short to get anything done, reveals a common human condition.


The superiority theory holds that humor is the expression of sublimated aggressive and sexual impulses.  This was the thesis of Freud’s main work on the topic, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.  In this view, humor is a verbal form of aggression and sexuality where there is always a persecutor and a victim.  By means of humor, the persecutor achieves a superior position in relation to the victim.  The term “to put someone down” is apt for describing this — the joker verbally gets on top of the victim by embarrassing the butt of the joke.  The way in which the joker “mounts” the unwilling subject of the joke shows how sexual harassment is a verbal form of rape.

Humor can certainly function in this way, and this section will point out a few forms of this type of humor.  But not even Freud considered this to be the only function of humor — in a little known essay entitled “Humor,” Freud explored the ways in which humor can be used as a defense mechanism in the face of intolerable conditions.

Satire is a good example of humor used in an aggressive and sexualized way.  The word comes from the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a festival based on Greek practice in which inhibitions were released and a lot of ribald humor was allowed.  In this context, the goat-men Satyrs were sexual predators.

Satire as a comic form serves to deflate or debase the pretensions of the respectable.  In its gentler and more constructive form, it can be an invitation to the pretentious to get down off their high horse and join the human race.  Parody, as a gentler form of caricature, can serve this purpose well, and is explored further in this chapter.  The harsher forms of satire function not just to knock them down but to keep them down, perhaps kicking them in the teeth while at it.  Satire of this sort seeks immediate results, but usually doesn’t achieve them.

The word “derision” means literally to “laugh down at” someone.  The term assumes malicious intent to dehumanize an unwilling subject.  A person who is derided is not being invited to join the human race; quite the opposite.

Sarcasm is often the tone we detect in malicious humor.   The original Greek word “sarkasmos” meant to “tear flesh” like a “sneering” beast.  There is reason to relate sarcasm with cynicism.    The word cynical originally meant “dog-like” – not in the positive sense of an animal that is good, but literally a “snarler”, that is, a mean dog.  Mean dogs tear flesh, are sarcastic.  Sarcasm and satire don’t point out our animal nature in the positive sense in which it exists in relation to our angelic aspect — they eliminate the angel and torment the beast.  As long as it is profitable to exploit the lower emotions, our society will be in danger of unraveling.  Instead, we should invest in cultivating the higher emotions.

Christopher Lasch criticized the tendency to use cynical jokes for the purpose of lowering all to the lowest common denominator:

Whereas Wurmser pleads for the “heroic transcendence of shame” through love and work, Nathanson recommends a kind of inoculation against shame — a healthy dose of shame in manageable amounts, such as we find in the therapeutic comedy of Buddy Hackett, that keeps it from becoming lethal.  What he finds appealing, I take it, is the lowering effect of Hackett’s bathroom humor.  The reminder that no one escapes “the call of nature,” as our grandmothers used to put it so delicately, serves both to deflate self-importance and to mock false modesty – all the more effectively, Nathanson seems to think, when it is couched in coarse, uninhibited language.

Hackett’s “comedy of acceptance” reconciles us to our limitations, according to Nathanson.  I think it merely encourages us to lower our sights.  There is a crucial difference between the acceptance of limitations and the impulse to reduce everything exalted to its lowest common denominator.  “Acceptance” becomes shameless, cynical surrender when it can no longer distinguish between nobility and pomposity, refinement of taste and social snobbery, modesty and prudery.  Cynicism confuses delusions of grandeur, which call for moral and therapeutic correction, with grandeur itself. (26)

Humor of the lowest common denominator masks as humble and egalitarian. Instead, it is false humility and elitism.  It points out our basest selves as an excuse for not striving for better.  And by arguing that our basest selves are our only “true” selves, it is calling anyone who believes otherwise naive and stupid, while the cynic is held up as smart and realistic.  Misery loves company, and will go to the most ridiculous lengths to get it.

Malicious humor aims not to correct a person, but to brand that person as hopeless.   In this sense it lacks the qualities of hope and respect. There is no hope for the butt of the joke, and the joker has no intention of taking a second look (respect means to look again) at the victim.  If the intention is to “score,” then the joker won’t recognize anything but the basest qualities in the target.  No second chance to redeem oneself.  One way to respond to such “jokes” is to call them what they really are:  insults.

In contrast, a person who teases as a way of correcting another may say things that are sharp or even biting, but seeks to engage the higher emotions of the person being corrected, helping that person save face and avoid unnecessary humiliation.  In short, this positive sense of teasing as a humorous form of fraternal correction shows its relationship to forgiveness:  the teaser endeavors to help the teased find a way out.

To see the forms that hopeful inclusion and cynical exclusion take in our current historical situation, it helps to consider some of the historical background to the inter-ethnic context of much of today’s humor.

Cultures in Contact:  Exclusion and the “Ethnic” Joke

The “ethnic joke” as we know it today developed from the mingling of ethnicities immigrating in the context of urban industrialization and the shift of population away from agriculture.   In general, ethnic humor involves negative stereotypes about other groups than the group with which the joke-teller identifies.   In his survey Ethnic Humor Around the World, Christie Davies tracks international pecking orders.  The picture that emerges could be described as “kicking the dog” – that is, abusing someone smaller in revenge for being abused by someone bigger.  Often times the same joke that is told of one group gets transferred on down to the next marginal group:  jokes about stupid Irishmen, canny Scotsmen, coarse Australians, boastful Americans, militaristic Germans, devious Welshmen, are told within each of these countries as jokes about the peoples of Kerry, Aberdeen, Tasmania, Texas, Prussia, and Cardiganshire, respectively. (27)

“Ethnics” are generally depicted as “stupid” or “canny.”   The “stupids” generally depict old-fashioned country folk who resist or don’t learn the ways of the city.   “Lightbulb” jokes, as in “how many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” are examples of this type of joke.  For those who assimilated to modern ways slowly, immigration to the city could be a path filled with insults.

Ironically, the very word “bigotry” comes from a “stupid” joke (bigotry=ignorance) – “bigot” was originally a French insult against the Normans.  The French themselves have been subjected to charges of chauvinism.

In contrast to the “stupid” joke, the “canny” joke is about a clever character who outwits his foe, sometimes in devious ways.  These jokes are told of ethnics who adapt all too well to city ways, losing touch with their heritage and values while opportunistically taking advantage of others.  Generally the canny ethnic is not to be trusted.   Neither the stupid nor the canny character is depicted as noble, virtue being reserved for the group of the joke-teller (although occasionally a joke told about a group will be used within the group by one faction against another, such as jokes about the stuffy upper class British).

The following joke plays on multiple European stereotypes in a way that is more egalitarian and self-referential:

In Heaven,                                                          In Hell,

the chefs are French                                           the chefs are English

the police are English                                         the police are German

the lovers are Italian                                           the lovers are Swiss

the mechanics are German                                 the mechanics are French

the administration is Swiss                                 the administration is Italian. (28)

Cultures in Contact:  Inclusion and the “Jewish” Joke

In contrast to the typical ethnic joke, which is told by an outsider of the group being made fun of, the “Jewish” joke is a joke by Jews about their own ethnicity.  This tendency for Jewish joking to be self-referential probably developed from the prophetic tradition that directed the community to self-criticism rather than condemnation of others.  Certainly other groups have jokes about their own people, but the unique thing about Jewish humor as distinct from other “insider” jokes is that so much of Jewish humor has spread to other cultures and become part of a commentary on universal human foibles.  Indeed, Jewish humor as we know it today developed in the cultural mix of Eastern Europe where story-telling was a highly evolved tradition.  For instance, many similarities can be found in the holy fool tradition of 18th century Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the tales of 18th century Jewish Hasidism. To consider some ways in which the Jewish joke can cross boundaries and bring us together, let us consider some examples.

Even when making fun of other groups (in this case the Cossack oppressors), Jewish humor often reserves a space for making fun of themselves:

If you tell a joke to a Russian farmer, he’ll laugh three times:  once when you tell the joke, the second time when you explain it to him, and the third time when he finally understands it.  But if you tell a joke to a Russian landowner, he’ll laugh twice:  once when you tell it, and once when you explain it.  Understand?  He’ll never understand.  If you tell a joke to a Cossack, he’ll laugh once:  when you tell it.  He won’t let you explain it, and he certainly won’t understand it.

And if you tell a joke to another Jew, he won’t laugh at all.  Before you finish the story, he’ll stop you and shout, “I’ve already heard it! Besides, I tell it a lot better than you do!” (30)

Although the Russians are depicted as stupid and the Jew smart, the smarty-pants rudeness of the Jew in this joke is criticized.

Jewish humor certainly has its share of “stupids.”   For instance, the schlemiel and schnorrer characters are generally stupid “no-goods” (although the schnorrer is opportunistic and sometimes “canny”).  Many jokes about these characters were told by the affluent urban Western European Jews who felt beset by immigrant Eastern European country cousins who were poor, dirty and unaccustomed to the Western European city ways.  Eastern European Jews had developed the basis for this humor in their own “Chelm” stories — a mythical town in Eastern Europe in which the foolishness of the town elders served for wisdom and the stupidity of the commonfolk brought luck.

Even when the hero of a Jewish joke appears clever, the reality isn’t always what it seems:

There is to be such a debate in which the two opponents are to ask each other the meaning of Hebrew words.  The first to confess ignorance will pay with his head.  The Jewish community is upset.  They are sure no good will come of it, one way or the other.  If they win, their representative, presumably the rabbi, will probably be penalized in some nasty way.  And if they lose, God forbid, they are likely to be hurt also.

So they call for volunteers, and a local drayman offers himself.  The people of the community are amazed.  But better to lose a drayman than to subject the rabbi to such a hazard.

So the disputants are introduced at the governor’s mansion – Father Thomas on one side, and Noiach the drayman on the other.  The governor decides to let the Jew ask the first question.

The executioner steps forward and receives his instruction:  he is to lop off the head of the first one to show that he cannot answer.

Noiach asks, “What is the meaning of eyneni yodayah?”

The priest responds promptly, “I don’t know” (which is the translation!).

Immediately, the executioner steps forward and off with the head.  The contest is over.

The Jews gather in the shul (synagogue).  There is naturally much joy.  The drayman is being carried around amid much merriment.  Finally, when things have calmed down a bit, the rabbi asks him, “How did such a wonderful question come into your head?”

“Well,” Noiach answers, “I remember when I was a child studying elementary stuff in the cheder, I ran across that phrase.  So I asked the melamed (teacher) what eyneni yodayah means and he told me ‘I don’t know.’  Now I ask you.  If my melamed didn’t know the meaning of it, how could you expect the priest to know it?” (31)

Sometimes the appearance of “canny” turns out to be “stupid”, but lucky none-the-less.  The surprise of being saved by luck rather than skill is a common comic quality.

Perhaps the genius of Jewish humor is not only in its ability to spot pride and pretension, but in its ability to tease out hypocrisy from its most cherished religious values:

In a synagogue on a Saturday morning the rabbi is delivering his sermon.  He is most impassioned in declaring the relative insignificance of man when compared with the glory of the Creator.  “Who is omniscient and omnipotent?” he exclaims.  “Certainly not man.  God alone, the merciful, all-knowing dispenser of justice is our shield and our source.  And in that perspective, we are nothing!” he stresses. “We are nothing!  As the great Rabbi Johanan said, ‘The words of the Torah abide only with him who regards himself as nothing.'”

Carried away by the rabbi’s eloquence, the cantor intones, “Yes, indeed, we are nothing, we are nothing.”

And the congregation president, who is also seated on the bimah (platform) next to the cantor, equally excited, also adds, “We are nothing!”

At this point, a congregant in the back of the temple jumps up shouting, “I too, I too, am nothing.”

The congregation president nudges the cantor.  “Listen to him, that shmendrick” (a derogatory term), he whispers.  “Look who wants to be nothing!” (32)

This joke works on many levels, exposing the pretense of humility among the elite, the contradictory criteria of conformity, and the way social status can infect and negate spirituality.

Finally, the following joke is about false humility in repentance, and is reminiscent of the New Testament maxim against making a show of one’s piety:

We are in the shul (synagogue) during the High Holy Days.  A fairly young man is expressing his penitence for all the things he has done wrong during the past year, by beating his breast fiercely, very hard.  An older gentleman approaches him and says, “With such violence you will get nowhere with God!” (33)

There are many reasons why Jewish humor is so important for our understanding of inclusive humor.  First and foremost is the Jewish prophetic tradition’s injunction against tripping the blind, ridiculing the deaf, or otherwise persecuting the disadvantaged and oppressed. This frees humor from the ancient association between laughter and malice.  But what has made Jewish humor so relevant to our current global situation are the changes brought about by World War II.

Prior to World War II, Europe was divided between stable national cultures and the extra-national, wandering groups, the Gypsies and the Jews.  The national groups could assume an identity without question, whereas the wanderers were constantly faced with the question of assimilation versus asserting an identity-in-exile.  Many ethnic jokes revolve around the extremes of the immigrant dilemma – those who over-assimilate (trying to deny their ethnic heritage) versus those who stubbornly refuse any adjustment to the host culture.

World War II exposed the evils that had spread within German nationalism.  The fact that the radical evil of the Nazi regime could flourish in the advanced civilization of industrial Germany shocked the world with a new consciousness.  The shock produced by that radical evil has thrown us all into moral exile.  We can no longer presume a national identity to be good.  The Nuremberg Trials ended unquestioned allegiances, and we all are as wanderers in the absence of stable national identities. Ethically speaking, we are all immigrants in the world of power, facing the dilemmas of assimilation and resistance.

In this sense the Wandering Jew is no longer a minority, but the universal embodiment of our identities cast adrift.  Once we lose the illusion that national power provides us with an anchor for our identity, we find ourselves together in the same boat on the high seas of a common human predicament, awkwardly suspended between the realm of the angels and the world of the animals.  Beyond merit, beyond fortune, beyond triumph is our common humanity, noble and ridiculous.

We can find this type of wry Jewish humor in the movie No Man’s Land by Bosnian War documentarian Danis Tanovic (2001).  The fictional story (with factual touches) is set in the Bosnian War where a Croatian soldier and a Serbian soldier become trapped together in a trench and confront a ludicrous dilemma – another Croat soldier, wounded and presumed dead, has been booby-trapped by Serbian soldiers with a “spring mine” that will explode when the body is moved.  The wounded soldier revives, and the situation draws the bickering Serb and Croat into a common cause of survival that drags in an unwilling international community.  It is the black humor of this situation that provides a way out of the endless bickering of the two soldiers over who is responsible for the war.  In an interview, Tanovic identifies this humor in the face of tragedy as “the secret weapon of Jewish humor.”  Tanovic’s movie, which does not deny the tragedy of the victimization of Bosnia by Serbia, has won awards both in Tanovic’s native Bosnia, and internationally.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to concur with Henry Eilbirt’s summation of Jewish humor:

Someone has said that Jews are like everyone else – only more so!  I think this book has proved that.  It must be clear by now that their joking includes the things other people joke about – and more, for behind the Jewish joke one can see vistas of Jewish life and Jewish history.

I hope that while you were reading, you found yourself smiling, or chuckling, or laughing outright from time to time.  The fact is that living in our so-called civilized society demands that we be able to laugh.  It has been said that people nowadays are so tense that they can’t even fall asleep in church, or, I suppose, in synagogue.

Jews learned that lesson long ago.  And now I leave you with an old Jewish saying:  Lach!  Lach!  Duktoirim zugen ahz lachen iz gezunt!  Which means, “Laugh!  Laugh!  The doctors say that laughing is healthy.”  Amen! (34)

So now on to Humor and Health (and other maladies).

Hope, Humor and Forgiveness:

A Global Survey

Part 2:  Humor and Forgiveness as Weapons of Peace

Now that we have established the humor of solidarity as the form of humor that serves forgiveness, we can see how it operates in the context of different levels of conflict.  But before we move into the issue of conflicts between people, groups and nations, let us first consider how humor helps us resolve conflicts within ourselves.  But don’t confuse this with the question of self-forgiveness, which will be addressed in the conclusion of this book.


Many books have come out highlighting and documenting the healing power of forgiveness.   Indeed, the combination of social isolation and hostility are highly correlated to heart disease and other ailments.   Forgiveness and a forgiving attitude towards life serve to counteract those dis-eases.  So does a non-hostile sense of humor.

There is certainly a difference between healthy humor and sick humor. Sick humor nurses grudges and sets the self up as superior in one way or another, or drags everyone down to the basest level. Healthy humor serves to bring people together with greater empathy, love, and opportunity for healing.

Many studies have shown that laughing has positive health benefits (35).  Even pretending to laugh can have positive physiological effects (36).  Norman Cousins documented the ways in which laughter cured him of terminal illness (37).  As Norman Lear says of his comedy writing:  “Sometimes I can get carried away by the whole thing.  I can get carried away completely.  And I can add time to my life.” (38)  In a similar vein, a recent bumper-sticker parodies a common saying:  “She who laughs, lasts.”

There is a reason that Raymond Moody parodies his own title Life After Life with his book on the healing effects of humor entitled Laugh After Laugh (39).  The common phrase “comic relief” suggests a wide-spread notion that laughter is stress-reducing and a diversion from dis-ease, and medical studies increasingly confirm this notion.  The medical benefits of humor have generated a whole industry, including the creation of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.  In 1995, the Guinness Book of World Records certified the world’s oldest person, a French woman who smoked until she was 117.  She attributes her longevity to lots of good-hearted laughter.

There is a relationship between humor and confession in that they are both “free speech.”  In both we tend to “let it all hang out.”   But before we get too giddy about this topic of humor, let us remember the warnings against “arrogant or flippant confessions” that make light of serious offenses.  An insistently comedic presentation becomes witless, compulsive and irresponsible.   For instance, a popular writer of psychotherapy books writes:  “I constantly joke with clients about their problems in order to cure them of seriousness, which is what locks the model down.  You get serious, you get stuck.” (40)  The assumption that seriousness is incompatible with humor and that everything can and should be made into a joke is, at best, a juvenile mentality.   This categorically joking attitude can be dangerous — the author’s dismissive attitude towards serious issues helped him to get involved in a world of hard drugs and guns, and ultimately murder.

Conrad Hyers articulates this problem with categorical humor very directly:

Even humor in relation to oneself can be a two-edged sword.  On the one hand it can become a masochistic device for self-abasement and humiliation.  On the other hand, and more commonly, it can become a means of avoiding, rather than moving toward, humility and contrition.  It is possible to laugh at oneself as a way of excusing oneself, and of casually evading the deeper necessities of repentance, seeking forgiveness, and gaining restitution and change.  Here humor, instead of being the servant of seriousness and objectivity, becomes the screen of irresponsibility. (41)

A more positive role of humor in healing is the technique first articulated by Viktor Frankl as “paradoxical intention.”  This technique asks the patient to imitate a compulsive or phobic behavior in such a way that helps the patient overcome the compulsion or phobia with humor.

In the Brief Therapy developed at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, this method has been named “symptom prescription.”  The MRI method prescribes that the patient reenact the symptomatic behavior in a more benign form because some behaviors, if attempted deliberately rather than done automatically, are harder to perform, or have a different effect if done deliberately.   But with the MRI method, the therapist is instructed to administer the prescription in a totally dead pan manner, never letting on that there is a humorous, paradoxical element to the prescription.  This can result in the therapist (covertly) laughing at, rather than laughing with, the client.  For Frankl, paradoxical intention helps by laughing with the client:

One of my American students, who had to take his exams from me and in this setting was to explain paradoxical intention, resorted to the following autobiographical account:  “My stomach used to growl in company of others.  The more I tried to keep it from happening, the more it growled.  Soon I started to take it for granted that it would be with me for the rest of my life.  Began to live with it – laughed with others about it.  Soon it disappeared.”

In this context, I should like to place emphasis on the fact that my student adopted a humorous attitude towards a symptom.  In fact, paradoxical intention should always be formulated in as humorous a manner as possible.  Humor is indeed a definitely human phenomenon.  After all, no beast is capable of laughing.  What is even more important, humor allows man to create perspective, to put distance between himself and whatever may confront him.  By the same token, humor allows man to detach himself from himself and thereby to attain the fullest possible control over himself.  To make use of the human capacity of self-detachment is what paradoxical intention basically achieves. (42)

Paradoxical intention has an artificial, performance quality that is reminiscent of dramatic methods in the comic arts.  Indeed, “paradoxical intention” and “parody” may have more than a surface similarity of spelling – Frankl’s method may be best understood as a Shakespearian comic technique.  Compare Frankl’s definition of paradoxical intention with Dwight McDonald’s definition of parody:

What is parody?  The dictionaries are not helpful.  Dr. Johnson defines parody as “a kind of writing in which the words of an author or his thoughts are taken and by a slight change adapted to some new purpose,” which is imprecise and incomplete.  The Oxford dictionary comes closer:  “a composition…in which characteristic turns of an author…are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous, especially by applying them to ludicrously inappropriate subjects.” This at least brings in humor. (43)

These definitions can be useful in the behavioral as well as the literary domains if we simply replace “words, writing, author, etc.” with “behaviors, prescription, client, etc.”  Dr. Johnson’s would serve as a definition of “symptom prescription” in the “dead pan” MRI model (where the humor of the twist is not made explicit); Oxford’s definition of parody, making humor explicit, would serve as a definition of “paradoxical intention.” Perhaps we could rename Frankl’s technique of paradoxical intention “self-parody” (paradox and parody being related etymologically), where a patient has a ridiculously difficult time imitating his or her own symptom.

In his book Provocative Therapy, Frank Farrelley articulates the reasons why those in the helping professions should learn how to laugh with their clients and avoid laughing at their clients (44).  If we can learn how to do this, we can broaden our humor to poke fun at moralistic, bawdy and jargon-laden mentalities (45).  If we can thus speak the language of those we encounter and laugh with them, imitating them in proper form and in a calm, humble and confident manner, we can develop with others a sense of the ridiculous without ridicule, of humility without humiliation.

Humor can help us gain more compassion for someone whose behavior might elicit disapproval.  Viktor Frankl tells this joke in order to show how relapse to alcoholism can result from a lack of meaning and purpose in the social world:

A man meets his family doctor on the street.  “How are you, Mr. Jones?” asks the doctor.  “Pardon?” asks the man.  “HOW ARE YOU?” asks the doctor again.  “You see,” answers the man, “my hearing capacity has deteriorated.”  Now it was the doctor’s turn.  “Certainly you are drinking too much.  Stop drinking and you will hear better.”

Some months later they meet again.  “HOW ARE YOU, MR. JONES?”  “You need not shout at me, Doctor.  I am hearing quite well.”  “Certainly you have stopped drinking?”  “That is true.”  Some months later they meet for the third time.  But again the doctor has to raise his voice in order to make himself understood.  “Certainly you have resumed drinking?” he asks his patient.  And the latter replies, “Listen, Doctor.  First I was drinking and my hearing got worse.  Then I stopped drinking and heard better.  But what I heard was not as good as whiskey.” (46)

Frankl tells this joke in order to show the social nature of motivation.  Since the patient isn’t making sufficient social connection in order to “like what he hears better than whiskey,” he uses whiskey as a substitute for the meaning lost through alienation and demoralization.  It is only by renewing the social connection that this patient will regain the hope and motivation to relinquish the substitute of whiskey.

When a joke like this resonates widely, it can travel long distances and inhabit settings and contexts quite diverse.  Consider how the German whiskey joke above seems right at home in the U.S. Southwest, the four-corners region of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries about the Navajo Tribal Police.  While tracking a homicide, tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn interviews the aging, sardonic owner of an isolated trading post:

McGinnis poured the bourbon carefully, stopping exactly at the copyright symbol under the Coca-Cola trademark on the glass.  That done, he glanced up at Leaphorn.


“Had a doctor tell me I ought to quit this stuff because it was affecting my eardrums and I told him I liked what I was drinking better’n what I was hearing.” (47)

A wonderful parable that shows the relationship between healing and social connection comes to us from the Hasidic story-telling master Nahman of Bratslav:

In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster.  He sought refuge under the table and lived there, naked, refusing to partake of the royal delicacies served in golden dishes – all he wanted and accepted was the grain reserved for the roosters. The king was desperate.  He sent for the best physicians, the most famous specialists; all admitted their incompetence.  So did the magicians.  And the monks, the ascetics, the miracle-makers; all their interventions proved fruitless.

One day an unknown sage presented himself at court.  “I think that I could heal the prince,” he said shyly.  “Will you allow me to try?”

The king consented, and to the surprise of all present, the sage removed his clothes, and joining the prince under the table, began to crow like a rooster.

Suspicious, the prince interrogated him:  “Who are you and what are you doing here?” – “And you,” replied the sage, “who are you and what are you doing here?” – “Can’t you see?  I am a rooster!” – “Hmm,” said the Sage, “how very strange to meet you here!” – “Why strange?” – “You mean you don’t see?  Really not?  You don’t see that I am a rooster just like you?”

The two men became friends and swore never to leave each other.

And then the sage undertook to cure the prince by using himself as an example.  He started by putting on a shirt.  The prince couldn’t believe his eyes. – “Are you crazy?  Are you forgetting who you are? You really want to be a man?” – “You know,” said the Sage in a gentle voice, “you mustn’t ever believe that a rooster who dresses like a man ceases to be a rooster.”  The prince had to agree.  The next day both dressed in a normal way.  The sage sent for some dishes from the palace kitchen.  “Wretch!  What are you doing?” protested the prince, frightened in the extreme.  “Are you going to eat like them now?” His friend allayed his fears:  “Don’t ever think that by eating like man, with man, at his table, a rooster ceases to be what he is; you mustn’t ever believe that it is enough for a rooster to behave like a man to become human; you can do anything with man, in his world and even for him, and yet remain the rooster you are.”

And the prince was convinced; he resumed his life as a prince. (48)

Medical research has shown that the risk of heart disease can be reduced by reducing hostility and social isolation.  Similarly, forgiveness reduces hostility, social isolation and associated health risks such as depression, hypertension and heart disease. We do not heal ourselves alone without having something beyond ourselves to live for.  Similarly, we do not develop a sense of humor without getting beyond our isolated selves.  These considerations naturally lead to an exploration of the relationship between humor and positive social relations.



The True Path

Just before Ninakawa died, Zen Master Ikkyu visited him.  “Shall I lead you on?” Ikkyu said.  Ninakawa replied, “I came here alone and I go alone.  What help could you be to me?”  Ikkyu answered, “If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion.  Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and going.”  With those words, Ikkyu had revealed the path so clearly that Ninakawa smiled and passed away. (49)

At the moment of greatest aloneness before death, Ninakawa found a good humored connection with his friend Ikkyu.

It is a virtue to be well-disposed toward humor.  Unless a comment is patently offensive or implies something very nasty, good manners encourage us to be good humored in response to attempts at humor.  Giving the benefit of the doubt and receiving the gift of humor graciously, even when the joke is not understood or the gift appreciated, is good practice.  Jonathan Miller notes the role of pretense in humor, the expectation to laugh even when the joke is incomprehensible, similar to the expectation to give thanks for an unwanted gift (50).  Pretending to be pleased, in this sense, has its own reward in the performance, separate from the good or bad performance of others.   Under any circumstance it is fun to be a good actor.  It is the same as Pascal’s maxim that if one wants to learn how to believe, one should act as if one does believe.  “The willing suspension of disbelief” is how Coleridge put it.  Pretending to laugh can have health benefits, and pretending to laugh can have social benefits.

Living with others is a blessing and a curse.  Erasmus’ classic In Praise of Folly is most eloquent on how humor can help a mix of people live more harmoniously together in the face of inevitable difficulties:

In sum, no society, no union in life, could be either pleasant or lasting without me [Dame Folly].  A people does not for long tolerate its prince, or a master tolerate his servant, a handmaiden her mistress, a teacher his student, a friend his friend, a wife her husband, a landlord his tenant, a partner his partner, or a boarder his fellow-boarder, except as they mutually or by turns are mistaken, on occasion flatter, on occasion wisely wink, and otherwise soothe themselves with the sweetness of folly. (51)

Good humor often sets a tone of generosity for good company, sometimes preventing conflicts, sometimes helping smooth over mole-hills that threaten to become mountains.  Humor and a generous response to humor are some of the “small acts of civility” that provide the basis for larger acts of forgiveness.  For example, consider the gracious humor of Rabbi Ishmael in the following Talmudic story:

Rabbi Ishmael, son of Rabbi Jose, visited the home of Simeon ben Jose ben Lokunia.  They offered him a goblet which he accepted at the first invitation and drank in one draught.  Said they to him:  “Do you not agree that he who drinks his goblet in one draught is greedy?”  Said he to them:  “This is not said when your goblet is small, your wine sweet and my stomach broad.” (52)

This light-handed repartee helps ease the tension of the potential conflict in a socially awkward situation.  Although not a serious situation (where such ready humor might be considered belittling or dismissive of a complaint), the humor here prevents bad feelings from developing.  The rabbi’s gracious teasing of his hosts is accomplished through a mixture of praise (“sweet wine”), criticism (“small goblet”) and self-derogation (“broad stomach”), all of which combine to establish the rabbi as a “jolly good fellow.” (53)

Notice that even if the Rabbi’s hosts were too slow-witted to get his humor, they would still understand that he had not responded with the anger or fear that one might expect of someone confronted socially.  In this sense, they could treat him as a “jolly good fellow” just as if they had gotten the joke.  Aside from the joke, the Rabbi’s good humor provides them with an opportunity to be generous in return.  This points up some of the multi-faceted aspects of laughter in social situations.

Being good humored in society involves relating to others as humans below the angels and above the animals.  It does no good to pretend to be pure, nor endeavor to be beastly.   We need not make beasts of people in order to point out how we are not always angels.  For instance, consider this story in which a desert father pokes fun at his brother who wants to deny the reality of the body and become an angel:

It was told of Abbot John the Dwarf that once he said to his elder brother:  I want to live in the same security as the angels have, doing no work, but serving God without intermission.  And casting off everything he had on, he started out into the desert.  When a week had gone by he returned to his brother.  And while he was knocking on the door, his brother called out before opening, and asked:  Who are you? He replied:  I am John.  Then his brother answered and said:  John has become an angel and is no longer among men.  But John kept on knocking and said:  It is I.  Still the brother did not open, but kept him waiting.  Finally opening the door, he said:  If you are a man, you are going to have to start working again in order to live.  But if you are an angel, why do you want to come into a cell?  So John did penance and said:  Forgive me, brother, for I have sinned. (54)

There is a universal quality to this lesson.  The following Zen Buddhist story has the same character of the importance of learning the limitations of the body:

Daiye was a great Zen Master of the Sung dynasty in China, and he had a student monk named Doken who had spent many years studying Zen without much progress.  One day the Master sent Doken to a distant place on an errand that would take half a year.  Doken was very discouraged because it would hinder his study of Zen in meditation.  Doken’s friend and fellow monk, Sogen, took pity on him and said, “I will accompany you and help you in whatever way I can so that you can continue to study even while traveling.”  So both of them set off on the errand.

One evening Sogen said sadly to Doken, “You know, I am willing to help you in every way, but there are five things I can not do for you.” “What are they?” asked Doken.  “For instance,” said his friend, “when you are hungry or thirsty, you must eat or drink by yourself.  My eating will not fill your stomach.  When you need to respond to the calls of nature, you must take care of them yourself; I can not be of any use.  And then, in traveling, you must carry your own body along this highway.”  With these remarks, Doken’s mind was opened.  He did not know how to express his joy.

Sogen said to his friend, “My work is done, you don’t need my company any more,” and he left.  When Doken finished the errand and returned to the temple, Master Daiye immediately perceived the enlightenment of Doken. (55)

Those who learn this lesson well gain a sense of humor about themselves.  For instance, Abbot John the Dwarf took to the comic view to the extent of finding salvation by means of gladly enduring sarcasm:

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him.  When this period was over, the Master said to him:  Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom.  When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went.  He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing.  Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing.  Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours.  Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying:  This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven. (56)

It became common wisdom among the desert fathers to consider good humor in the face of insults to be the mark of the promising spiritual aspirant:  “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults.  The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” (57)

The use of irony is a common quality in Jewish humor and rabbinic teaching style.   Many of Jesus’ teaching methods have been interpreted to include the rabbinical style of using humor and ironical twists to turn the tables on the unjust or to stand the pretentious on their heads (58).  Examples include making the last first and the first last in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:31), the idea that the rich have as much chance of entering heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), and the idea that the penance of prostitutes, tax collectors and ethnic minorities have greater value than the pious performances of Temple educated Pharisees and Sadducees (Mark:12:40; Luke 10:29-37).

The following story from the desert fathers achieves a wonderful ironic twist on the Gospel of John story where Jesus prevents the stoning of the adulteress:

Abba Ammonas came one day to eat in a place where there was a monk of evil repute.  Now it happened that a woman came and entered the cell of the brother of evil reputation.  The dwellers in that place, having learnt this, were troubled and gathered together to chase the brother from his cell.  Knowing that Bishop Ammonas was in the place, they asked him to join them.  When the brother in question learnt this, he hid the woman in a large cask.  The crowd of monks came to the place.  Now Abba Ammonas saw the position clearly but for the sake of God he kept the secret; he entered, seating himself on the cask and commanded the cell to be searched.  Then when the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, Abba Ammonas said, “What is this?  May God forgive you!”  After praying, he made everyone go out, then taking the brother by the hand he said, “Brother, be on your guard.”  With these words, he withdrew. (59)

This is an example of an event that was not funny at the time but becomes humorous in the telling.  It is refreshing to have an ancient story in which the man is held responsible for carnal relations, and a stroke of genius how the bishop prevents the brother from being caught.  Guarding the secret and chastising the crowd allowed the bishop to admonish the brother privately – a brilliant example of fraternal correction.

A Zen Buddhist story on a similar theme also includes a humorous fraternal correction:

Tanzan and his disciple were traveling to the next village.  They came to a stream, swollen by recent rain.  At the edge of the stream stood a well-dressed, beautiful young woman unable to cross because the small foot bridge had been washed away.  Seeing her problem, Tanzan offered to help, and lifting her in his arms, he crossed the stream with her and set her down.  Then he and his disciple continued their journey.  All afternoon his disciple pondered his teacher’s action, for surely, in addition to the five precepts, monks are warned never to approach women, much less take them in their arms!  That evening at supper he could contain himself no longer.  “Why did you take that woman in your arms?” he asked his teacher.  Tanzan replied, “I left that girl back on the other side of that stream.  Are you still carrying her?” (60)

The better we know a person and the more positively we are connected with that person, the more liberty we have to correct that person.  Intimacy, humor, and artistic license have a compelling relationship. Without that relationship, proselytizers should be careful about how they approach persons unfamiliar to them.  The desert fathers were clear that correction was reserved for those with whom they were familiar, and suspended judgment for strangers:

Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabennisi.  Pachonius asked him, “When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?”  Abba Macarius said to him, “Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no-one else.  For truly it is written:  ‘Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.'”  (1 Cor. 5.12-13) (61)

This rule discourages correction of those outside one’s group, but also gives license to correct those who have voluntarily subjected themselves to one’s spiritual direction.  The following story, a primitive Christian version of the “Zen koan” prescribed by a master to vex his disciple, shows how such a task could take on the quality of a practical joke that would be cruel to a stranger, but could be enlightening to a disciple:

It was said of Abba John, the disciple of Abba Paul, that his obedience was very great.  Now there were some tombs thereabouts where a hyena lived.  The old man saw some dung in the place, and told John to go and fetch it.  He said, “And what shall I do about the hyena, Abba?”  The old man said to him jokingly, “If she sets upon you, tie her up and bring her here.”  So in the evening, the brother went there.  And lo, the hyena fell upon him.  According to the man’s instructions, he rushed to catch her.  But the hyena ran away.  He pursued her, saying, “My abba says I am to tie you up.”  He seized her and bound her.  Now the old man was uneasy and sat waiting for him.  When he returned, he brought the hyena on a rope.  When the old man saw this he was filled with wonder, but he wanted to humiliate him, so he struck him, and said, “Fool, why have you brought a silly dog here?”  Then the old man set her free at once and let her go. (62)

Perhaps only in the conditions of the desert could one consider this practical joke to be an act of friendship.  But when a student is hyper-obedient to the point of lacking common sense, a dramatic example like this demonstrates that not all words should be interpreted literally.

Humor can say a lot about a person and how we perceive that person. The way each of us makes and responds to humor either increases or limits our ability to move through society in a positive way.  Perhaps the greatest Eastern European author, Dostoevsky, considered the way a person laughs to be the best indicator of the state of that person’s soul.  In The Adolescent (also know as A Raw Youth), Dostoevsky has the narrator break the flow of the story to present a lengthy essay on this theme.  In this essay (considerably shortened here), Dostoevsky distinguishes between good humor and vulgar, unkind humor, and echoes many of the themes of hope and good humor that we found with Peguy.  The adolescent, in this essay, explains his spiritual attraction to an old man who lives as part of the “holy fool” tradition:

Laughing people have no more idea of what their faces look like than sleepers have of theirs…

And so, if you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, or seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you’ll get better results if you just watch him laugh.  If he laughs well, he’s a good man.  You must, however, note all the shades of his laugh…

I deliberately decided to insert this lengthy dissertation on laughter here, even at the expense of the continuity of my narrative, because I consider it one of the most important conclusions derived from my life experience…All I claim to know is that laughter is the most reliable gauge of human nature.  Look at children, for instance: children are the only human creatures to produce perfect laughter and that’s just what makes them most enchanting…

And that day I perceived something childlike and incredibly attractive in the fleeting laughter of the old man, and unhesitatingly I went up to him. (63)

Dostoevsky claims this gauge of human nature to be useful for identifying everything from holiness to a good marriage prospect.  Indeed, the ability to be subject to humor is essential to the very nature of holiness.  We can find this principle in a story of Jesus, who is humorously corrected by a woman in a way very similar to the story of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt in chapter two:

Jesus left that place and withdrew to a region of Tyre and Sidon.  Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting. “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me.  My daughter is tormented by a devil.”  But he answered her not a word.  And his disciples went and pleaded with him. “Give her what she wants,” they said, “because she is shouting after us.”  He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet.  “Lord,” she said, “help me.”  He replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs.” She retorted, “Ah yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, you have great faith.  Let your wish be granted.”  And from that moment her daughter was well again.                          (Matthew 15:21-28)

We can see how this woman turns Jesus’ metaphor of dog food back on him in order to expand his sense of humorous compassion over his humor-less ethnic judgment.

In summary, good humor is inherently social, and plays an important role in developing positive social relationships, in preventing conflict and the escalation of conflict, and in helping us identify what is most valuable in others.


When there are tensions between groups in which a volatile situation might develop, it helps to make interactions more predictable.  We found this with the more sober ritual of the Sulha in chapter three, as well as the more ordinary and light-hearted family rituals incorporated into the FAST program (also in chapter three).  The same guideline serves for the use of humor in unpredictable group situations where it is hard to tell how any one person might respond to any given thing:  keep it simple and put it in a predictable, routine format.

In no situation is it more important for groups to cooperate than under adverse environmental conditions.  In the Arctic regions, the Inuit Eskimos have survived as a race due to their ability to cooperate on large hunting expeditions.  Some ways in which they have traditionally established this cooperation between their leading hunters can be instructive.  Some of these leaders develop long-term “joking partnerships” that include various ritual behaviors.  Prior to the hunt, the leaders and their families would meet for a festival and gift-giving.  During this time the men would stage ritualized humor competitions, including such activities as face-wrestling (where one man tries to make as funny of a face as possible of another man’s face by poking, pulling, squeezing, etc. various facial parts) and insult songs.  When a joking partnership was well-developed, these joking songs were sometimes put on the road, as in the following descriptions by Spencer in 1959:

It is clear that the joking partnership was a great source of interest and entertainment to everyone in the community.  When a traveler arrived, he announced that he had a song for such and such man.  At this, everyone in the community came around to hear it, and the new arrival sang it to the recipient before the assembled community, usually choosing a karigi [ceremonial house] as the place for the singing.  The erstwhile importance of the songs as a recreational outlet is indicated by the fact that they are still remembered and still sung in many cases.  The men who sent songs to each other and maintained the song-partner relationship are likewise vividly recalled. (64)

The songs could be highly competitive, taking on the quality of literary duels, as the following description shows:

The sense of rivalry in such singing was strong.  The last song was considered better because it used the same theme as the original song and turned it back at the original singer.  The song sent back from kuk by annesiraq, while clever, was not so well done in that it failed to tie into the original song of kucirrak. (65)

An excellent example of a lampoon song comes from Miss Manners, the syndicated advice column by Judith Martin.  In the following, Miss Manners took the “original song” and “turned it back at the original singer,” managing to poke some fun at herself along the way:

Dear Miss Manners:  Too many manners just might mean too little fun.

With this in mind, I would like to ask you if you have:

1)  eaten a pizza with bare fingers?

2)  been to a bowling alley (of your own free will)?

3)  drank a six-pack of beer?

4)  called a man a “hunk”?

5)  ever not worn underwear on a hot day?

6)  eaten fried chicken straight from the bucket?

7)  ever gone on a date in a pickup truck?

Gentle Reader:  Have you ever:

1)  been shocked by Miss Manners?

You are about to.  Prepare yourself.

No, she is not going to plead for your cultural approval by claiming that her recreational tastes are identical to yours.  The prospect of riding in the back of a pickup truck with six cans of beer sloshing around in her stomach and no underwear is not, as you have astutely guessed, her idea of a rollicking good time.

But she has no objection to it being yours.  The shocking news is that none of the things you mention is intrinsically rude.

What you are really trying to say is that manners apply only to formal behavior, and that the opposite of manners is informality and fun.  Wrong, buddy, wrong.  Do you imagine that there is not an etiquette for bowling? Try going out of turn. (66)

These lampooning rituals can remind us of some of the personal comments in the debates of representative democracy.  The following example from 19th century British parliamentary history has the same style of verbal dueling:

At one point during a debate, Gladstone became so angry at Disraeli that he shouted:  “Sir, you are contemptible!  I say you will end up either on the gallows or in a hospital for the treatment of venereal disease!”

Disraeli immediately replied, “That, my worthy friend, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” (67)

Ritualized insults like this can also remind us of the African-American youth practice of “the dozens,” where each insult is expected to be topped in ritualized fashion, similar to break-dance competitions.  When such rituals are well-prepared, they can serve to reduce tension and develop joking partnerships.  An odd couple example of this comes from a Chicago housing project, where the home boys were challenged to a Rap Music contest by undercover cops (68).  The undercover cops gained the respect of the home boys by successfully parodying them with their band called “the Slick Boys.”

But when competitions like this are not equally matched or well-prepared, social damage can result.  Sometimes the Eskimo lampoons resulted in the ostracism of the less adept competitor (69).  Numerous examples exist of retaliation by gang members for being “dissed” (disrespected) with disparaging comments or gestures.

Comedy and jokes poke fun at the extremes of behavior and attitude.  The more groups one mixes, the greater variety of extremes one is bound to encounter.  Although this can lead to greater chaos and conflict, it can also lead to more interesting contrasts.   Consider the following two-family mediation, where the rabbi uses the mix of extremes to counter each other with one pithy line:

A woman comes to the rabbi in her town.  “Rabbi, help me.  My husband is so generous, I think he will give away all we own if he continues.”

“Have him come and talk to me,” the rabbi tells her.

Soon thereafter, a man comes to talk to the rabbi.  “Rabbi, my family is in such dire need.  We don’t even have enough to eat.  And worst of all, my brother is wealthy and won’t help us at all.  Maybe if you talk with him…”

“Have him come talk to me,” the rabbi says once more.

Both men arrive together and the rabbi, for some reason of his own, asks both of them to come to his alcove together.

“Why are you giving away all your hard-earned money?” he asks Mr. Generous.

“Rabbi, we are only human.  After all, one can die at any moment.  I would be afraid to appear before the Almighty to be judged if I thought that I had not acted properly, in line with what our Lord commands us to do!”

“And you,” the rabbi turns to the other man, “how is it that you do not help your brother?”

“Well, Rabbi,” is the answer, “we are only human.  Who can tell how long he is to live.  I am afraid that if I live a long time and don’t save my money, I too will end up in poverty.”

The rabbi thinks for a moment and comments, “Well, may the Almighty see to it that your fears turn out to be groundless!” (70)

By coming into contact with each other under the questioning of the rabbi, these two men are able to see their own foolishness while observing the folly of others.

Teasing out foolishness in the good humored presence of others is quite evident in the multi-family group program Families and Schools Together.  Young children’s natural enjoyment of “hokey” activities provides an atmosphere in which it is easier for parents to enjoy family and social life.  This allows parents to shift from the extremes of authoritarian or permissive styles to a more positive enjoyment of leadership and bonding with their children.  The demonstrated positive results of the program are largely attributed by its founder to the tone of good humor it sets and the opportunities for mutual laughter it provides.  Many families report that prior to getting involved in the program, they had not laughed together for years, and that laughing together was an important change for the family. (71)

Humor can be helpful for easing larger group conflicts as well.  When there is an entrenched feud, it sometimes takes the presence of an outsider to introduce the comic alternative.  The “Belgian Army Joke” illustrates this possibility.  Robert Pinsky, in a memorial poem to a joke-loving friend named Elliot, tells the “Belgian Army Joke” in the following way:

[…].  There’s one

A journalist told me.  He heard it while a hero

Of the South African freedom movement was speaking

To elderly Jews.  The speaker’s own right arm

Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.

He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots

For the ANC — a group the old Jews feared

As “in with the Arabs.”  But they started weeping

As the old one-armed fighter told them their country

Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote

Could make a country their children could return to

From London and Chicago.  The moved old people

Applauded wildly, and the speaker’s friend

Whispered to the journalist, “It’s the Belgian Army

Joke come to life.”  I wish that I could tell it

to Elliot.  In the Belgian Army, the feud

Between the Flemings and the Walloons grew vicious,

So out of hand the army could barely function.

Finally one commander assembled his men

In one great room, to deal with things directly.

They stood before him at attention.  “All Flemings,”

He ordered, “to the left wall.”  Half the men

Clustered to the left.  “Now all Walloons,” he ordered,

“Move to the right.”  An equal number crowded

Against the right wall.  Only one man remained

At attention in the middle:  “What are you, soldier?”

Saluting, the man said, “Sir, I am a Belgian.”

“Why, that’s astounding, Corporal — what’s your name?”

Saluting again, “Rabinowitz,” he answered:

A joke that seems at first to be a story

About the Jews.  […] (72)

This joke may remind us of the role Jews played in Sarajevo during the Bosnian Civil War:  they were the only group allowed to operate a hospital unmolested.  This was a power denied both Serbian and Muslim medical professionals by their opposing militaries.

Thus far, this analysis of humor has not addressed issues of power:  we usually share a joke more readily with someone we consider a peer. When the relationship is unequal, the situation becomes trickier.


In the Ancient Greco-Roman world, it was commonly assumed that the poor were by nature inferior and it was generally acceptable to ridicule the disadvantaged.  In contrast to this, the Judeo-Christian tradition has sought to raise the moral standards so that all people are treated with dignity – one should not “trip the blind” for amusement or one’s own advantage.  It is this vision of our common humanity that is the grounds for the prophetic tradition that speaks out against the abuses of power.

The Roman imperial world-view was that power makes a man great; the prophetic view that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely was foreign to the imperial mentality.  The consequences of the abuse of power are tragic, but the ludicrous idea that a limited human creature could assume God-like powers lends itself to prophetic humor.  Traditionally the role of court jester or holy fool was to keep the powerful from taking themselves too seriously and consequently abusing power.  Hyers relates this to the role the prophet plays in deflating the pretensions of the powerful:  “For at the heart of the comic spirit and perspective is the acceptance of the prophetic warning against idolatry, and against that greatest blasphemy of all, the claim to possess or to be as God.” (73)  In the following passage, Hyers associates the abuse of power with an intolerance of humor about oneself:

In this regard, there is a marked affinity between religious absolutism, ideological radicalism, and political tyranny.  Theological dogmatism shares with its socio-political counterparts in the attempted abolition of humor in relation to itself.  A common trait of dictators, revolutionaries, and ecclesiastical authoritarians alike is the refusal both to laugh at themselves and to permit others to laugh at them. (74)

An ancient Chinese story provides a good example of how the court jester can use humor to prevent an abuse of power:

A Chinese Emperor…would allow nothing but ten-cash pieces to be minted.  No one dared explain the disadvantages of this to him until two of his clowns thought of a comic turn to perform “for his amusement.”  One took the part of a soft-drinks seller, the other the part of the customer.  The customer asked for a one-cash drink, and handed over the smallest coin he had — a ten-cash piece.  The vendor could not give him any change, for he had no smaller coins either, so, with a great deal of puffing and blowing, the customer drank ten big drinks.  Then he sighed, and burst out with, “There!  But if the Government made us use those big hundred-cash pieces I’d have popped!”

The Emperor laughed long and loud — but the next day he ordered one-cash pieces to be put back into circulation. (75)

Notice that the clowns were making fun of the situation that the Emperor was intending to create (using exaggeration) rather than making fun of the person of the Emperor.  The indirect nature of their criticism allowed the Emperor to save face, feel included in the joke, and correct his behavior.  Yet however indirect the criticism, the Emperor must have had a modicum of humor about himself to appreciate the joke and change his mind, realizing that his clowns were gently pointing him out to be the fool.

Another eastern story with a powerful official demonstrating a humorous appreciation of his human limitations comes from the Japanese Zen tradition:

Kitagaki, the governor of Kyoto, called upon the great Zen Master of Tofukuji Temple, Master Kiechu.  He gave the attendant monk his calling card to give to Kiechu.  The card read:  “Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto.”  Kiechu looked at the card and said, “I have no business with such a fellow.  Tell him to get out of here!”  The attendant carried the card back with an apology.  “No, that was my error,” the governor said.  He took the card, scratched out the words “Governor of Kyoto,” and said, “Please take this back and ask your teacher again.”  When Kiechu saw the card he said, “Oh is that Kitagaki?  I want to see that fellow.” (76)

These stories from China and Japan have similar features to the Russian holy fool tradition of the yurodivi.  But holy fools do not often meet up with officials who have a sense of their own human limitations, and sometimes officials like that require what has come to be called the “dope-slap”.  In the story previously related in chapter four, Saint Pelagia literally delivers the punch-line to the Bishop in the form of a direct rebuke that adds insult to injury (in other words, she cuffs him one, but refuses his request for a second).  That story has comic elements of both physical humor (slapstick) and intellectual humor (Zen).   Pelagia’s performance also includes the use of reversal and exaggeration (slapping a superior) as well as another reversal with under-statement (refusing to slap the other cheek on command from the superior).  Pelagia was part of the 18th century religious renewal movement in Russia initiated by St. Seraphim of Sarov, a movement associated with the Jewish Hasidic renewal movement during the same period.  From this story we can see how the prophetic voice has an important role when Christendom takes on features of the Roman Empire and its abuse of power. (77)

St. Seraphim himself had run-ins with the authorities.  In order to stop him from being spiritual director and supporter to a convent, the Ecclesiastical ranks arranged with the civil authorities to block supplies being taken in to the convent.  This is how Seraphim outwitted his persecutors:

“One day when I was with Father Seraphim,” Mother Eudoxia tells us again, “he gave me a large sack and told me to return to Diveyevo by way of Sarov’s Holy Gate.  He usually advised me to make a detour in order to avoid the soldiers.  I was astonished that, this time, he was mercilessly sending me into harm’s way.  (The Abbot and monks had, in fact, ordered the soldiers to stop us going through and it was I in particular whom they had told the soldiers to intercept, because I used to come more frequently than the others to fetch our provisions.)  Not daring to disobey, I shouldered my burden without so much as knowing what it contained, and off I went.  When I got to the Gate I said my prayer; at the same instant the soldiers seized my sack and took me to the Abbot, who ordered me to open it.  My hands were trembling; he was watching me without saying a word.  When I opened the sack what was my surprise to see it filled with stones, crusts of bread, bits of wood, old sandals, all this crammed so full that it was a ton of weight!  Taken aback, Niphont exclaimed:  ‘O Seraphim, it’s not enough for you to mortify yourself, you have to torment the Diveyevo sisters as well!’ And he let me go.  Another time the father again gave me a load of stones and sand and said to me:  ‘This will be the last time that they will stop you.’  And indeed, I was stopped as I went through the Gate and taken to Niphont.  When he saw the stones he told the soldiers not to stop me any more.  After that I could go through the Holy Gate as often as I liked.”

The Staretz would smile when the sisters told him these stories because, although his heart grieved him, he always looked on the humorous side when with his ‘orphans’. (78)

In this story the joke serves to adjust a power imbalance, and it succeeds because the target of the joke doesn’t get it (is out-witted).  A more direct protest joke is told of the Russian holy fool Nicholas.  Nicholas offers Ivan the Terrible raw meat during Lent.  Ivan refuses by saying he is a Christian and doesn’t eat meat during Lent.  Nicholas objected, “But you drink Christian blood?” (79)  As with the Pelagia story, the abuser of power is set up as a straight man, uttering a conventional religious position, in response to which the punch-line is an unconventional religious revelation.

Provocative challenges to the powerful are not only found in western societies.  The following Zen Koan shows a Master being very provocative in challenging the temper and pride of a samurai soldier:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”  “Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.  “I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.  “You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin.  “What kind of lord would have you as his guard?  You look like a beggar!”  Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.  Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword.  It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”  Nobushige brandished his weapon. Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”  At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.  “Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin. (80)

Countering the abuses of power with prophetic humor is a tradition in all major religions, the holy fool being an advanced form of the trickster figure that can be found throughout comparative religious history.

The prophetic voice has relevance in the industrial and post-industrial eras.  The last time that unjust inequalities of power threatened the social fabric in the United States, during the Gilded Age of the robber barons, the sociologist Thornstein Veblen helped change social attitudes toward opulent living by coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption.”  This phrase changed the perception of luxury from a status symbol to a sign of excess and pretension. (81)

Political humorist Molly Ivins, that passionate advocate of free speech, took on the prophetic voice to lambaste talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh for making fun of people who do not have the power to defend themselves.  It should be sufficient to tell the offender to pick on someone his own size.  But offensive speech, especially at the expense of the disadvantaged, has become much too common.  It is important to preach toleration, to be slow to anger, and to not take offense easily.  But patently offensive speech became so prevalent during the 1994 elections that retiring Senate Minority Speaker Republican Bob Michel, expressed shock when he heard what was on the radio.  When the offender is called to account for such speech, often the best we get is a “sorry if I offended anyone” type of insincere apology, as if the offense is not an objective social fact, but only exists in the mind of anyone who would be so weak as to be offended.  Such an “apology” leaves the door wide open for recommitting the offense, as events since Senator Michel decried the conduct of his own party have amply proven.  It is now a given that any true American hero who has the courage to exercise free speech will become the target for character assassination by the right-wing media machine.

It is ironic and tragic that sometimes such un-Christian behavior masks itself with the pretense of Christian self-righteousness.  Behavior this base should be characterized for what it is.  The Yahoos of Jonathan Swift’s satire come to mind:  monkeys sitting in trees, defecating on those “below” them.  It would be nice to be able to welcome the offenders back into the civic forum.  But silence and a modicum of modesty would be better than phony apologies.  Until there is a change of tone in the hate-speech style that infects the media these days, it will be legitimate to fight fire with satire, applauding such gestures as that of the independent bookseller Neil Coonerty, who made a splash by selling Rush Limbaugh’s book for the price of baloney.

Even under the most oppressive conditions, it is hard to stifle the spirit of protest.  A good example of the use of satire to protest military occupation and oppression comes from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II:

Once there came into the ghetto a certain Nazi from a province where the Jews are required to greet every Nazi soldier they encountered, removing their hats as they do.  There is no such practice in Warsaw, but the “honored guest” wanted to be strict and force the rules of his place of origin on us.  A great uproar arose suddenly…The little “wise guys,” the true lords of the street, noticed what was going on and found great amusement in actually obeying the Nazi, and showing him great respect in a manner calculated to make a laughingstock out of the “great Lord” in the eyes of all the passersby.  They ran up to greet him a hundred and one times, taking off their hats in his honor.  They gathered in great numbers, with an artificial look of awe on their faces, and would not stop taking off their hats.  Some did this with straight faces, while their friends stood behind them and laughed…That wasn’t all.  Riffraff gathered for the fun, and they all made noisy demonstration in honor of the Nazi with a resounding cheer.

This is Jewish revenge! (82)

The idolatry of the Nazi, expecting to be worshipped like a God, is exposed as silly pretension.  Although prophetic in this sense, the satirical protest of the street kids risks severe retaliation.

When conditions of oppression become so extreme as to cripple free speech, good humor is all the more important.   The Czech writer Milan Kundera points out how humor can help us find our friends under the paranoia-producing conditions of living in an occupied country:

I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror.  I was twenty then.  I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled.  A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition.  Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor. (83)

When free speech is stifled in the public realm, it can continue in these signs of good humored camaraderie.  Ironic jokes develop under such conditions, such as this one:

A man who has requested an exit visa to one of the Western countries is summoned to the police station.  “Why do you want to leave?  Isn’t your salary good enough?  Is your work too hard?”

“No, I can’t complain.”

“Isn’t your flat big enough?”

“No, I can’t complain.”

“In that case, why do you want to leave?”

“Just because I can’t complain.” (84)

Under conditions of oppression, humor can help us find our friends, maintain our morale, and keep the door open for reconciliation with oppressors.  The following story told by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, before the end of apartheid, illustrates these points well:

In October 1985, a few days after police had hidden in crates on a lorry to decoy youths to stone their vehicle and had succeeded in their awful plan, killing at least two youngsters, I went to Cape Town to speak at a protest meeting.  The venue was close to Pollsmoor prison, where Nelson Mandela and others are now jailed.

There had been understandable anger in the community, but, remarkably, the audience — a very mixed one indeed — had a wonderful capacity to laugh.  Their funny bones were exposed, and it took very little to tickle them.  It seemed extraordinary, this gift of laughter in the midst of so much anguish.  Perhaps, as has sometimes been remarked, we laugh only because if we did not, we would cry and cry; there is so much that tugs at the heartstrings.  I marveled too at this meeting to observe the fund of goodwill among the races, which our rulers are frittering away so irresponsibly with their ham handed and ironfisted dealings with the victims of their vicious policy.  It is a real miracle that blacks still talk to whites after such a long history of rebuffs, exploitation, oppression, injustice and exclusion from any meaningful participation in the crucial decision-making processes. (85)



When a situation of oppression is too severe to allow for humor as a political tactic, it is still necessary to maintain a sense of humor as a defensive reserve.  Oppression can lead to obsession in the cause of justice, and obsession dis-eases the minds of those resisting oppression.  Dwelling on tragedy, we can lose our hope and passion for life.  Obsession hampers our imagination and fuels anger and fear.  The best defense against obsession is a strong, non-cynical sense of humor.  Studies of brain damage suggest that the imaginative ability to understand humor is important to maintain personality integration and prevent personality disintegration. (86)

We find the same recognition of the importance of humor among the best practitioners of forgiveness.  The imaginative, personality-integrating character of humor was recognized by Mohandas Gandhi in the following passage: “If I had no sense of humour, I should long ago have committed suicide.” (87)  As, indeed, may have some of those who followed him.

We have already seen how humor helped Viktor Frankl and his fellow inmates survive imprisonment by the Nazis. This principle seems to be a given amongst those who fare well when unjustly imprisoned, for we find the same sentiment from Thomas More, who was imprisoned and then executed by Henry VIII for his non-violent resistance: “The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.” (88)

Even when a political prisoner is cut off from social contact, a solitary (as distinct from private) sense of humor is important.  After he was imprisoned by the Nazis for his resistance activities, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following notes on a scrap of paper (smuggled from prison): “A sober view of things instead of illusion — the disappearance of memories and self-pity; for the one who has overcome:  humour.” (89)

Developing a sense of humor adequate to meet the challenges of extreme circumstances involves using our imagination to resolve the struggle between duty and free-will.  Frankl notes that “Humor is said even to be a divine attribute.  In three psalms God is referred to as a ‘laughing one.'” (90)  It is interesting to read the sentiments of these Psalms, two of which include the following:

The wicked man plots against the virtuous, and grinds his teeth at him; but the Lord only laughs at the man, knowing his end is in sight.

Though the wicked draw the sword, and bend their bow, to kill the upright, their swords will only pierce their own hearts and their bows will be smashed.

The little the virtuous possesses outweighs all the wealth of the wicked, since the arms of the wicked are doomed to break, and Yahweh will uphold the virtuous. (Psalm 37: 12-17)

For the psalmist, this rather frightening warning to those in power is balanced by an invitation to the communion of the humble:

The One whose throne is in heaven sits laughing… Happy all who take shelter in him.   (Psalm 2:4, 12)

This greater vision of hope, humor and celebration can give us the reserve to survive suffering, cruelty and oppression.  Perhaps this is the very life of prayer:  the ability to perceive hope in this world.  In this sense prayer is not so much what one says as what one hears.  The ability to listen attentively helps us distinguish what is true. Martin Buber asks how in the Bible we can distinguish the word of God from the voice of an ape of God (an impostor) (91).  Buber turns to Elijah for an answer.  When Elijah brings his plight before God at Mount Horeb (1Kings 19:11-13), the following occurs:

There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh.  But Yahweh was not in the wind.

After the wind came an earthquake.  But Yahweh was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake came a fire.  But Yahweh was not in the fire.

And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze.  And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

“Gentle breeze” has also been translated as “small still voice,” or more literally “thin quiet calling.”  The images are very universal and have a Zen-like quality.  Truth is not found in the loud insistent voice of identity but in the calm and gentle voice of integrity.

Buber uses this tool to criticize Kierkegaard’s view of an irrational God who first tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, then tells him to spare Isaac.  Buber concludes that the voice telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not the voice of God, but of an ape of God.  God’s voice comes through with the plea to spare Isaac.  There is a way out, and humor can help us find it by pointing out the ape.

Once we have put aside the “sound and fury” of the impostor, and can hear the voice of the gentle breeze, what then?  Elijah hears God asking “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Peguy uses the same imagery to bring us back to hope embodied by children:  “And the voices of children are purer than the voice of the wind in the calm of the valley.” (92)  Forgiveness brings hope, joy and innocent laughter. Forgiveness is also dependent on these qualities.

Just as imagination is a necessary faculty for over-coming conflicts and achieving forgiveness, so humor is one of the tools of the imagination that can help bring flexibility to an otherwise rigid situation.  The same qualities that help forgiveness succeed are also necessary for good-hearted humor:  hope, patience and courage.  With both forgiveness and humor:  timing is everything.  And if at first you don’t succeed:  try, try, again, something (anything! please…) different.  This is how we limp along on our pilgrimage of forgiveness, with or without the goose or the wild goose chase!


Different cultures create similar stories to address common human dilemmas.  We found an example of this earlier in this chapter with the similarity of the Desert Father story of the monk who wants to be an angel and pray all the time and the Zen Koan about the monk who wants to meditate all the time. It is a humorous coincidence that there is another Desert Father/Zen Koan couplet on the topic of forgiveness.  Consider the similarities of the story in chapter two of Abbot Anastasius and the monk who stole his Bible with the following Zen story:

Eno, the sixth patriarch of Zen, received from the fifth patriarch the symbols of authority:  the bowl and robe.  Because of the jealousy of some of the other monks, Eno left the monastery at night, taking the bowl and robe with him.  Some brother monks pursued him, intending to wrest the treasured objects from him.

Among them was a tall, extremely powerful monk named Emyo.  Eno knew Emyo was coming, so he sat and waited, placing the bowl and robe on a nearby rock.  When Emyo appeared, Eno said to him:  “These objects just symbolize the truth.  If you want them, take them.”  But when Emyo tried to lift the bowl and robe, they were as heavy as mountains.  Trembling with shame, he said:  “I came for the teaching, not for the material pleasures.  Please teach me.”

Eno instructed him:  “Do not think of good; do not think of evil.  Show me instead your original face.”  At these words Emyo’s entire body was bathed in perspiration:  he was enlightened.  In gratitude he said, “You have given me the secret words and meanings.  Is there yet a deeper part of the teaching?”  Eno replied:  “What I have told you is no secret at all.  When you realize your own true self, the secret belongs to you.” (93)






I presented some of this material on the website of the Growth Edge Network (GEN), an international group of practitioners interested in research on adult development.  This post got the following response from Susanne Cook-Greuter, PhD, who furthered research in the tradition of Jane Loevinger:


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