By Dwayne Eutsey
Each Sunday, we here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton are accustomed to hearing the inspiring, thought-provoking sermons delivered from this podium by our minister and guest speakers, sermons that delve into and wrestle with the big questions, complex issues, and profound mysteries that are at the very heart of human existence.
And then there are days like today. As they used to say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus: now, it’s time for something completely different. This morning, I want to discuss humor, so I’m sorry to say there will be no profound insights into life’s vexing problems today. Do not expect meaningful meditations, religious recitations, or somber orations. As they sing in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” today there will be “nothing with gods, nothing with fate; weighty affairs will just have to wait.”
To paraphrase Mark Twain’s notice at the beginning of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I feel I must issue this fair warning:
Persons attempting to find a motive in today’s sermon will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a coherent line of thought in it will be shot. Because as we all know, humor has nothing to do with God or Serious Matters…those Important Subjects and Eternal Verities pondered by theologians in ivory towers or discussed at Sunday worship services by ministers and overly-earnest lay leaders like myself. Right?
Well, if you see humor the way most of our culture defines it today, you might think you’re right. As with practically every other aspect of our lives these days, humor has been commoditized and our public experience of it often serves no other purpose but to divert, to gross out, insult, and trivialize. Think of shows like South Park on Comedy Central or most of Adam Sandler’s movies or radio shock jocks like Howard Stern.
I’m not looking down my nose at these popular examples of contemporary humor—well, maybe I am a little with some of Adam Sandler’s movies—but I am using them to point out how humor today is often perceived as separate from the serious side of life. Apart from the occasional dark comedy that blends the tragic with the comical (Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove comes to mind) and the occasional profound comedy (like, in my opinion, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), humor is typically seen as trivial or escapist or simply as “just entertainment.”
In other cultures and times throughout history, however, there was no clear line separating the sublime from the ridiculous in life; in fact, in many ancient societies, the two were often inseparably intertwined. This sensibility permeated the religious life of these cultures, and, as I’d like to explore a little this morning, is evident in their notions of God and in their worship ceremonies. Their underlying philosophy seemed to agree with Oscar Wilde’s view that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
I thought about this back in January when I heard Jim Bank’s interesting sermon on how people tend to see God in two basic ways: either as a monster, something awesome and to be feared, or as a lapdog we believe we can train to perform divine tricks for us. Of course, ancient cultures also saw God in these broad terms, but many of them also embraced and celebrated another important aspect of the divine that the monster/lapdog dichotomy leaves out.
This dimension of the divine is all too familiar to most of us. It’s the aspect of God, or the divine, or whatever you want to call it that delights in spraying us in the face with a cosmic seltzer bottle. It seems to enjoy slipping us up by tossing existential banana peels in our path. It’s that characteristic of the Deity that resembles Lucy in the Peanutscomic strip; you know, when she promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown and then yanks it away just when poor ol’ Charlie believes he’s really going to kick it this time.
I’m speaking, of course, of the mischievous trickster god. I know it’s almost heretical to espouse Trinitarian views in a Unitarian fellowship, but I think the trickster needs to be included along with the monster and lapdog concepts of God to form a new trinity: “In the name of the monster, the lapdog, and the trickster god, amen.”
Emphasizing God’s trickster side along with other ways of understanding the divine helps us come to terms with life’s absurdity. Doing so can help us develop a richer, more complete understanding (or perhaps appreciation is more accurate) of the chaotic world in which we live, a way to make some sense of the senseless things that can happen to us.
As I mentioned earlier, many ancient cultures, with their devotion to trickster gods, embraced this aspect of human existence better than we moderns do. One of my favorite examples is Eshu from the Yoruba people in West Africa. When Christian missionaries, folks not exactly known for their keen sense of humor, first encountered the Yoruba, they believed Eshu was the devil.
Talk about not getting the joke. Actually, Eshu’s nature is much more complex. Yoruba mythology is filled with tricksters like Eshu who not only protected people but played pranks on them that pointed out human shortcomings as well as the perplexing nature of the divine. Among other roles, Eshu had power over fortune and misfortune; he was the god of roads, especially crossroads, and messenger for the other gods.
He also enjoyed stirring up trouble by playing pranks on humanity, such as the time he walked down a road that ran through the middle of a village wearing a hat that was red on one side and blue on the other. Once he had passed through, the villagers on either side of the road began to argue about the color of Eshu’s hat. Everyone on one side of the road swore it was red, while those on the other side insisted it was blue. Makes you wonder if Eshu has anything to do with the so-called red state/blue state factionalism here in America.
In one version of the story, Eshu returned to the village and intervened before the two sides hurt each other and revealed to them that each perspective, in its limited way, was correct. In other, less optimistic accounts, Eshu laughs from a distance as he watches the two sides annihilate each other and says: “Bringing strife is my greatest joy.”
Whichever ending appeals to you most, each version of the myth indicates to me a far more sophisticated approach to the divine than our own. One story teaches us how our limited perspective shapes our incomplete perceptions of reality; the other attempts to point out the futility and perhaps even unavoidable nature of human conflict. And both force us to confront, to think about, and maybe even to accept the ambiguity permeating our lives.
Not that we moderns and post-moderns aren’t painfully aware of ambiguity; it’s just that for so many of us ambiguity and religious certainty cannot co-exist, where for the Yoruba, ambiguity was a religious certainty. Like the clueless Christian missionaries among the Yoruba, most of our religious denominations insist on consigning God’s trickster qualities to Satan, while the scientific worldview attributes them to a random, chaotic universe. Both views, in my opinion, lack the earthy and satisfyingly profound sense of humor that infuses Yoruba notions of God.
Similarly, this profound humor animates many tribal ceremonies as well. In his book The Essential Crazy Wisdom, Wes Nisker writes about the sacred clowns in Native American tribes whose purpose was to disrupt solemn religious services with lewd and obnoxious behavior. They even led the community in their own bawdy rituals.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the Cherokee ritual called the Booger Dance? In this lively event, sacred clowns (called “boogers”) perform a ritual in which they break wind, proclaim their obscene names, and dance in strange ways that highlight their buttocks and the exaggerated phallic symbols they’re wearing. Reminiscent of Harpo Marx, they lecherously chase tribal women around, and end the service by gyrating wildly in simulated sexual intercourse.
That puts a whole new spin on “gimme that old time religion,” doesn’t it?
Nisker also describes similar vulgar ceremonies in the medieval Catholic Church, before the church clamped down on all this runaway fun. There was the Feast of Fools, for instance, which was an annual parody mass in which riotous masqueraders marched into churches singing obscene songs, telling dirty jokes, dousing the congregation with smelly “holy water,” and waving around burning incense made of cow dung. Eventually, the Church forced this mass out of its sanctuary and into the streets (maybe it was the cow dung), where it is now celebrated as New Year’s Eve and Carnival.
Another odd mass called the festum asinarium commemorated Mary’s escape into Egypt. During the service, donkeys were led into the church as the congregation made hee-haw sounds after each element of the mass.
According to Nisker, such sacred clowning punctures holes in our high-minded, sometimes stuffy religious ceremonies, reminding us of nature and the animal, both around us and within us. He concludes: “Though officially squelched by the one on high, our wild, natural urges demand a place of honor and a means of expression. Sacred clowns make no distinction between high and low, the sacred and profane, and they won’t let us forget that we have only recently stood upright and put on these garments.”
That’s an important thing to remember because, for me, that insight is what helps to deepen and to nurture our humanity. Perhaps we can’t (or shouldn’t) revive the Booger Dance here, but I believe we need to develop what I call a spirituality of humor to sustain our mental, spiritual, and even physical health. Mahatma Gandhi, one of the great spiritual and political leaders of the 20th century, underscored the urgency of this need when he said: “If I had no sense of humor, I would have long ago committed suicide.”
As with any form of spirituality, one rooted in a humorous sensibility offers many practical benefits along with the metaphysical bonus of giving you a reason not to kill yourself. Three interrelated benefits in particular come to mind for me: a spirituality of humor can enhance our physical health, it can inspire us to resist and change social injustice, and it can help us to cope with difficult realities we can’t change.
In terms of our health, I’m sure many of you have heard about the scientific studies indicating that a strong sense of humor reduces stress and boosts the immune system. What always amuses me about these scientific studies is that they often proclaim insights that ancient cultures have taught for centuries. I’m waiting for scientists to confirm, after years of in-depth research and generous funding from large corporations and foundations, that breathing is indeed necessary for us to live.
Anyway, last year researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine conducted a study concluding that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels. They showed one group of study volunteers movies that produced mental stress and showed to another group movies that produced laughter. What they found was that laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels to expand, thereby increasing blood flow. The stressful movies had the exact opposite effect.
According to the doctor who conducted the study, narrow blood vessels can lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.
So, who knows? Maybe Adam Sandler movies, while not all that good for the brain, may actually be great for your heart.
But a spirituality of humor isn’t just another way of saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” As Mark Twain observed, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” In fact, I think the kind of humor I’m talking about is not only often rooted in painful realities, but it also empowers us to confront and perhaps even to liberate us from them. Twain also wrote that the human race
“has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution—these can lift a colossal humbug—push it a little—crowd it a little—weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter, nothing can stand.” In a fascinating article on humor during the Holocaust, John Morreall indicates how research shows that humor is perhaps the single most effective way to block brainwashing. This aspect of humor scared the Nazis, who realized that the sharp, subversive edge of humor had the power to slice through the poisonous crap spewed by their propaganda machine.
According to Morreall, the Nazis were terrified of humor and Hitler himself “had a horror of being laughed at,” which is why the fascists ruthlessly shut down cabarets in Berlin and forced darkly comic writers like Bertold Brecht to flee Germany in the ‘30s.
Morreall cites one joke told by Jews in Europe during the Holocaust that demonstrates how humor can unite people even during the bleakest of times:
As Hitler's armies faced more and more setbacks, he asked his astrologer, "Am I going to lose the war?"
"Yes," the astrologer said.
"Then, am I going to die?" Hitler asked.
"When am I going to die?"
"On a Jewish holiday."
"But on what holiday?"
"Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday."
If permitted to thrive, the power of humor can transform lives and societies. One of my favorite comedians, Richard Pryor, died recently after a life filled with pain (much of it self-inflicted), but it was a pain that he transformed into something liberating. Pryor’s obituary in USA Today noted that “by confronting racial differences and lampooning social mores while giving voice to people (such as himself) who grew up and lived in the margins of society, he forever altered the face of mainstream comedy.”
Damon Wayans summed up the value of Pryor’s humor when he wrote: "By telling the truth about his pain, Richard held up a mirror to society, and we were able to see our fears, our beauty, our prejudice, our wretchedness, our hopes, our dreams — all of our contradictions.” Like a true sacred clown who understands how the serious and the humorous merge together and emerge from each other, Pryor once reflected: “What I'm saying may be profane, but it is also profound."
So, a spirituality of humor is not only good for your cardiovascular health, it can even embolden resistance to oppression and help to liberate us from it. But there are some facts and circumstances about existence that can’t be changed with a laugh. Some realities we simply have to endure and learn to cope with. Death is a good example. Although we won’t escape it, we can use laughter, as the Jamaican proverb says, to mask our anguish. One of my favorite lines about our mortality is from Woody Allen, who said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Humor helps us cope with difficult times that aren’t going to end any time soon. At the end of every hard earned day, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, it can help people find some reason to believe. Believe what? Believe that they’re going to make it through somehow. Even though my mother has had many struggles and hardships in her life, one of the many things I admire about her is that she’s always held on to a strong sense of humor that helped us to hold us together as a family.
We didn’t have much when I was a kid, but my strongest memories of childhood aren’t of what we lacked. What I remember most vividly is the laughter we shared. In the ‘70s we loved watching shows like MASH, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Taxi. There was one episode of Taxi that had my mother and me practically on the floor gasping for air, we were laughing so hard. It was the one in which the brain-fried refugee from the ‘60s, Rev. Jim, needed to get his driving license so he could become a cab driver. The other cabbies take Jim to the MVA for his test and, during the written exam, he asks them what does the yellow traffic light mean.
“Slow down,” one of the cabbies whispers back quickly so the MVA official won’t see him giving Jim the answer.
So Jim, in his befuddled way, responds: “What…does…the yellow…light…mean?”
“Slow down,” the cabbies snap back at him.
“Wwwhaaaat…doooooooes…thuuuuh…yyeeeelllow…liiiiiiight…meeeeaaaan?” And on and on it went. Perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate why my mother and I found that scene so hilarious, but even though we saw it during a rough time in our lives, what I remember most about that time is how she and I laughed together so hard we cried.
That’s the point I would like to conclude on. There’s often just the finest of lines separating our laughter from our crying. I know I promised nothing with gods, nothing with fate; and that weighty affairs would just have to wait, but I’ve been something of a trickster myself this morning. Like Eshu, I’ve worn a hat today that consists of humor, absurdity, and silliness on one side, and gods, fate, and weighty affairs on the other. I think it’s wise to remember that both sides are woven together in such a way that you can’t always tell where the serious ends and the humorous begins.
Rather than trying to separate the two, I think it’s healthier and ultimately more satisfying to realize they’re both part of one elaborate cosmic trick that invites us to laugh at ourselves because ultimately, the joke is on us.