Humor a timeless paradox that defines the human condition

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As we prepare to open January’s backpack with the hopes of finding some contemplative, stoic musings inside, it slips from our hands and falls down a cliff.

We worry that we might have lost the opportunity to discover profound, worthy wisdom from the ancients. We quickly trek down the cliff to retrieve the pack, only to find that in our haste we left our necessary supplies at the top of the precipice. Exhausted, annoyed and frustrated, we mumble that whatever is in this backpack had better be good. This had better be worth the trouble.

When we finally arrive at its location, we open it — and hear laughter. Is someone laughing at us? Or, with us? “Is someone enjoying a good laugh at our expense?” we angrily wonder, as we look for the source of the snickering. As is often the case with humor, it is hard to differentiate kindness from malice, good fun from cruel intent. In this first month of the year, philosophy reminds us that hidden within its great tomes of thought and contemplation, silliness, absurdity and laughter exist. Philosophy insists on reminding us that we are vulnerable, goofy and unsophisticated, and frequently, lack an enormous amount of grace. Instead of offering solid advice on how to succeed at completing our New Year’s resolutions, January’s philosophy demands that we address the very fuzzy line between having the ability to laugh at one’s self and the compassion to restrain from that option when dealing with others.

Humor is a very funny thing, philosophically speaking. It reveals cultural norms and practices; it is time-relevant (both in its delivery and in its zeitgeist); it is timeless; and it both heals and hurts. If ever there was a paradoxical concept defining our human condition, it must be humor.

For anyone who has ever been human, he or she is aware that the human condition is deeply troubling, beautiful, tender, resilient and disturbing. To deny this tension is to deny our complexity. Humor’s derivative, laughter, is a unique characteristic to communication, in that it transcends language barriers, socio-economic differences and gender categorizations.

However, as quickly as humor can de-escalate tense situations, it can also instantaneously inflame sensitivities. Humor without a nod to reciprocity, without consideration to others’ feelings, is nothing but tactless taunting.

The navigation of this prickly definition is a process instead of a static classification. The willingness to attempt to avoid indifference is a noble and necessary pursuit. To admit to our own weakness in our facade’s infallibility permits us to laugh at ourselves and equalizes otherwise arbitrarily inequitable relationships.

The absurdity of many of our life’s situations is not lost on philosophers, many of whom choose comedy as their conduit for living the examined life. (All joking aside, it is mind-boggling how many successful comedians have educational backgrounds in philosophical study. This is not so surprising, I suppose, when we think of how philosophy as a discipline appreciates sarcasm — one only need to think of Socrates; loves irony — modern-day readers still delight in Kierkegaard’s satirical and pseudonymous works; and relishes in the gentle stubbornness and determination of unrelenting, humorous skepticism — most definitely, Hume.) Of course, philosophers struggle with the extremes, too. Mimicking humor’s mockery of moderation, it is evident that the melancholic struggles of Pascal, James, Wittgenstein and others teeter between appreciative funniness and tragedy. As the brilliant bard reminds us, there is great significance in the concept of comic tragedies or, beauty in tragic comedies.

As we struggle with the backpack and its contents, then, we begin to laugh. Stuck on the abyss, with nothing but an absurd rucksack to rein in the new year, we begin to laugh. We might laugh with hysteria-laced giggles, we might laugh until, ironically, we begin to cry, but laugh we must.

This life is funny. If we can remember that among our senses our sense of humor may be our greatest guiding principle, we might just find our way back up to the summit. Smile in hand.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu.

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