In this world of duality, generally speaking, to feel good is to be happy, calm and connected. To feel bad is to feel sad, mad and/or separate. Living in illusion means we try to live on only the happy side of life. In such a case, smiling becomes our main goal. Laughing out loud, then, becomes our Mount Olympus. But seldom—if ever—in this world, is anything all one thing or another. And humor is no different.
No doubt, a good laugh does feel good. After all, humor is a fabulous God-given quality. But is laughter always filled with only light? Does being funny—or attempting to amuse—always make things better? When we make fun of someone or something, is that fun for everyone?
Why does humor sometimes cross a line and go from being funny to being hurtful?
Humor wears many faces
It’s often the case that laughing in the face of our struggles can lighten our load. For laughter can be very healing. But humor is also a funny thing (pun intended). It can wear many faces. Depending on what’s going on inside us, our sense of humor may carry a mix of both lightness and darkness.
As such, we can look at the way we use humor—at the kind of humor that tickles us—to learn some things about ourselves.
Take sarcasm, for instance. When we make a sarcastic remark, we use words that mean the opposite of what they say. Sometimes we do this just to be funny. But often we use sarcasm when we want to show our irritation—without sounding mean—or deliver an insult. Like we might say someone is really on top of things when we want to point out how disorganized they are. If our words backfire, we fall back on, “I was only joking!”
When we use sarcasm this way we are using irony to mock. This is one way to “make fun of” something or someone. What we are often really doing is conveying our judgment or contempt. We are pointing a sarcastic comment at a person with an intention to criticize.
Sarcasm vs Irony
Similarly, but somewhat differently, we are being ironic when we communicate the opposite of what we notice, but do so in a general way. So while people make sarcasm happen, irony is just there.
With irony, there may also be wit or a clever play of words. Like this line in the movie Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” The term “war room” was originally the location where military strategies were discussed. Funny side note: When I worked in advertising, the war room was where the creative team met to brainstorm headlines for advertising campaigns.
Being cynical is not the same as being sarcastic. Cynical people don’t trust that others are sincere or in integrity. So a cynical person is generally pessimistic about others, believing that everyone is motivated by their own self-interest.
A cynical person will always look for—and so, of course, also find—the negativity and selfishness in the way people behave. Such a person will tend to use sarcasm to sneer at others. Politicians are an especially easy target.
Cynics often think they are “just keeping things real.” But in reality, this is a world of duality, so there is both good and bad in nearly everything in life. Hence, although there is certainly some truth to being cynical, it lacks the perspective of seeing the whole truth.
“Your sarcasm, your cynicism, in certain ways, your irony is not only a defense against the world, but it is perhaps even more so a defense against yourself. It’s the only way the rebel nature in you—the violence in you, the rage in you—can seek a modified outlet.
It is as though a tremendous power is only allowed to trickle out in a very ineffective way. And by this very ineffective way puts you in a greater problem with the world and therefore with yourself.”– Pathwork Guide Q&A #166 on Sarcasm
During my years working in the corporate world, I had the good fortune of traveling to many other countries. My travels took me to Europe, including England, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. I also got to visit several countries in Asia, including Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. My many international colleagues were always bilingual, if not multilingual, which was also my very good fortune.
Over the course of many visits to various customers in Japan, I became friends with one of my Japanese colleagues. I was in marketing and Saito-san was in sales. He was smart, kind and very funny. And since he was also bilingual—my gratitude for all my bilingual colleagues ran very deep—when I gave presentations to a roomful of engineers in Japan, Saito-san would translate for me.
From time to time, during in-depth conversations with a customer, the whole room would laugh about something he said. Then my friend would translate back to me what had made them all laugh. And every time, I also thought the comment was very funny. What I learned is that, by and large, humor translates. Everyone, all around the world, laughs at the same things.
Good humor can carry a lot of light
The most wonderful thing about my colleague’s humor was the way he could be funny, without leaning on criticism. He had a genuine talent for making people laugh without cutting anyone down. His words would delight, so people would gravitate to him. He was very well-suited for being in sales.
Another Japanese colleague once told me this joke. It landed well for me because it revealed a simple truth. He said: What do you a call a person who speaks two languages? I said: Bilingual. He said: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? I said: Trilingual. He said: What do you call a person who speaks one language? I said: I don’t know. He replied: American.
This joke poked fun at me a bit—along with most of my fellow Americans—but it didn’t hurt my feelings. For I had a good relationship with this person. So he could tell me this joke, knowing I would understand there wasn’t any malice behind it. I laughed, because it’s so true! This is good reminder that it’s important to know our audience when we use humor.
“The more you mature emotionally, the more awareness do you gain, the more this will emanate from you and, in some way, it will find expression spontaneously, creatively, in your activities, whatever they are. Whether you are a doctor, a teacher or a shoemaker, makes no difference. You will influence your surroundings, not so much by what you say or preach, but by your mere being, by your emanations.”– Pathwork Guide Lecture #105 Q&A on Self-Development
The way we use humor matters
Done well, humor can illuminate without hurting. Maybe even inspire change. (I’ve been working for several years now to become bilingual*.) Which is why people often use humor to soften the blow, if you will, in pointing out something in need of fixing. It can be an effective tool when used right.
But depending on how it’s oriented, it can elicit emotions that may not feel good. For there are always two aspects to consider in life. There is 1) what we do, and there is 2) how we go about it.
Where I worked, employees were assessed on these two considerations separately. So you could receive high marks for getting a project done. But if you “leave dead bodies along the way,” as one of my managers put it, you would wipe out most of the credit you got for completing the job.
It’s like this with humor. It can land differently, depending on how it’s done. Because there’s what you say—the real message you are wanting to communicate—and there’s how you say it. Sometimes humor lands well because it simply reveals a truth. Like that joke in Japan. Other times, humor is a thinly veiled criticism. Then it’s funny, but it also stings.
And sometimes humor crosses the line. Especially when it is intentionally used as a blowtorch. In such a situation, one side laughs while the other side burns. Duality at its finest, folks. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
Words can be pointed, like a knife
To be human means we have various conflicting parts. Some parts carry light, while others are still stuck in darkness. To whatever extent we still have inner darkness, we may hone the edge of our humor so that it cuts like a knife. Or we will gravitate to those who do so.
So someone may have an uncanny ability to spot the distortions in situations. But instead of using their insight to help straighten things out and restore connections, they will use their cleverness to shred people. Consider political cartoons that make a point about a political personalities or current event. They are in every daily paper, but they are not in the comics section. Rather, they are next to the editorial columns where people write essays to express their opinion.
This type of cartoon will typically use exaggeration and labels, along with symbols, analogies and irony. They can be a powerful way to interpret and reflect on the news of the day. They capture the human nature of their subjects, and may either humanize it or make fun of it.
Political cartoons—also called editorial cartoons—may reveal a truthful perspective. But at the same time, they often deliver an insult. This is what happens when people use humor to turn the sword of truth into a weapon, intending to wound others. But honestly, do insults work to motivate others to change?
We see this a lot where cruelty cloaks itself as amusement. Under the guise of humor, people routinely tell jokes aimed at other political groups, other religions, other nationalities. These are basically insults masquerading as being funny.
Sure, there’s a genuine aspect of humor in the mix. But when it’s so tainted with negativity, it’s not possible to not be an insult.
Satire is a literary device that artfully ridicules the vice or folly of a person or situation. Think: the 2021 movie Don’t Look Up. Satire combines tones of amusement with indignation, scorn and contempt to highlight a flawed subject. The intention is to expose and create more awareness with the hope of inspiring change.
But again, when the mix becomes overly dark, the intention can shift from increasing awareness to just insulting a person, group or situation. The art lies in how you go about it.
Sometimes it’s just not funny
I once spent some time around a family that had developed a difficult dynamic of laughing at another’s misfortune. Like, hit your head on an open cabinet door…ha ha ha. In a nutshell, this is humor that’s just a hair away from cruelty. Classrooms can be a hotbed for this kind of thing.
Practical jokes fall into this same category. They involve intentionally planning a scenario that will scare, embarrass or anger someone. Probably all three. I know of a parent who set their son’s clock forward an hour. Because it’s hilarious to watch a teenager wait an extra hour, in the dark, for the bus.
People can also develop a habit of laughing after saying something that has no humor in it. This could actually be a defense. The unconscious intention may be to make the other person also laugh or smile. Because the hidden belief may be “if you are happy, I am safe.” This might stem from growing up in a household where people were not happy, and it was not safe.
Transforming our humor
The trouble is, we are often particularly attracted to the kinds of humor that are loaded with negativity. Why? Because along the way our own wiring has gotten twisted. So now we need a certain flavor of negativity to turn on our lights. In fact, we actually like our distortions due to the way they light us up.
To make things worse, we believe that if we give up our distortions—such as our enjoyment of dark humor—we will have no fun at all. But this is not correct. This confusion is a key reason we stay mired in conflict and struggle. Because negativity is highly charged. We get such a kick out of biting sarcastic remarks or making fun of others! This makes our negativity incredibly hard to let go of.
In truth, since all our negativity towards life is always something positive that’s gotten twisted, it can always be unwound. We can transform ourselves. In other words, it is possible to have the same amount of excitement, pleasure and fun, without the jagged edge.
This is what self-development is all about: Restoring ourselves to our original light-infused form. One way to do this is by paying attention to the kind the humor that attracts us. With awareness, we can then make new choices.
But if we allow ourselves to steep in the kinds of humor that debase others, build on pessimism, or spiral around in cruel and bitter criticism, we’ll miss out on the true humor of life. We’ll miss the genuine blessing of bright and joyful laughter.
* Prior to a trip to Brazil in Spring of 2019, Scott and I were taking weekly Portuguese lessons for nearly four months. In one exercise, our teacher asked us to spell out Portuguese words to each other, using the proper Portuguese pronunciation for the letters.
The day before, I had stopped by Scott’s office to pick him up to go skiing. But the front parking lot had been completely full. I saw a sign that said Additional Parking in Rear of Building, so I texted Scott where to find me.
Since we had just learned the Portuguese words for “car” and “parking lot” in class, I was excited to try texting him in Portuguese. With a little help from Google Translate, I was able to tell him “Meu carro está no estacionamento traseiro,” which means “My car is in the rear parking lot.”
When it was Scott’s turn to spell a word for me, he picked one from this text. Our teacher’s eyes began to widen around the fourth letter…t…r…a…s…and by the time we got to the end, she was clearly surprised.
“Where did you learn this word?” she asked. So we told her what had happened. Then we all laughed when she explained that Scott was spelling the Portuguese word for “ass.”
Need a good laugh? Salty: The Colorful Adventures of a Well-Seasoned Seadog by Lon Calloway
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