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Writing Humor as Spiritual Practice

We didn’t joke about religion in the family I grew up in. My parents were neither stern nor particularly pious, they just took their faith seriously. You didn’t joke about the mass in my house. You didn’t joke about the sacraments. And you sure as hell didn’t joke about Jesus. The god of my childhood was loving and compassionate, but he had zero sense of humor.

I wasn’t alone. Many religious traditions disavow humor, as if lightheartedness were anathema to the sacred. James Martin in Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life describes humorlessness as widespread, nondenominational, and interfaith. How often have we seen the Western god depicted as a powerful man with a booming voice and a lot of angry demands?  I can’t remember ever seeing a Christian depiction of god laughing. While there are joyful, celebratory denominations in all faiths, many in the U.S. at least, focus on sin,commandments, and hell. What could be more unfunny than the threat of eternal damnation?

When I discovered spiritual traditions—Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, and others—that not only accept humor, but foster it, I was astonished. Then I thought, Well, of course! Why wouldn’t humor—that natural, joyful, universal aspect of everyday life—be part of spiritual practice? “A lighthearted spirit…is an essential element of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life in general,” Martin writes. “When we lose sight of this serious truth, we cease to live life fully, truly, and wholly. Indeed, we fail to be holy.”

If you write about spirituality, you may have shied away from humor, feeling that spiritual writing commands a kind of gravitas that laughter belies. If you write humor, you may have never considered your writing to be spiritual practice in any way. If you’re in either of these camps, learn a lesson from the Winnebago people, whose sacred Trickster stories are bawdy, mischievous, and hilarious, or Zen Buddhists, who sprinkle spiritual teaching with quiet humor.

Spiritual writing can and should embrace humor wholeheartedly, and humor writing is just as surely spiritual as devotional poetry. Here are some reasons why:

1. Humor is based on truth.

“There is more logic in humor than in anything else,” said humorist and musician Victor Borge. “Because, you see, humor is truth.” Borge should know: He was dubbed “The Clown Prince of Denmark.”

We find humor in hyperbole, paradox, and surprise not because they are false, but because they are true. The most ridiculous of jokes is funny if it makes the real visible and concrete. We don’t laugh at things that strike us as simply false, but at things, however silly and strange, that we know are, at root, the truth.

2. Humor engages keen observation of everyday experience.

Humorists look at the world with sharp eyes, taking note of the small and ordinary things. Most contemporary stand-up comics use their observations of the commonplace as their primary tool. Jerry Seinfeld riffs on airport restroom faucets, TV cooking shows, and dating. Bill Cosby has done routines on health-food stores and baby names. Ellen Degeneres jokes about going to the gym and about people who keep deer heads on their walls. Why are these three among the funniest people on the planet? Because they’ve paid close attention to things the rest of us are too familiar with to notice. DeGeneres says, “I get those fleeting, beautiful moments of inner peace and stillness - and then the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day, I'm a human trying to make it through in this world.” Why does that make us smile? Because we’ve all been there.

3. Humor plays with language.

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” goes one “garden path” sentence or paraprosdokian.  

Humor often fiddles with language, twists and turns it, flips it upside down. It leads the listener to expect one thing, then delivers something completely different, as in Groucho Marx’s comment, “I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” It swaps words like trading cards, as in Oscar Wilde’s, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” And it shifts around the order of words, as in Mae West’s, “It’s not the men in your life that count, it’s the life in your men.”

By fiddling with words, humor awakens us to the structure of language itself, and to the assumptions that underlie speech. It engages what Leigh Anne Jasheway calls creative misdirection, and it makes us think twice about the meaning of our words.

4. Humor is revealing.

Writer Christopher Morley called humor “an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.” Humor takes the absurdities of life, brings them out in the open, and forces us to acknowledge them. It exposes the paradoxes and incongruities we live with. It pulls the veil back on life, revealing the often not-so-pretty reality underneath.

When Billy Crystal pokes fun of the Oscars by saying, “Nothing can take the sting off the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other golden statues,” he's not just being funny. He's commenting on the absurdities of celebrity and the cruelty of economic disparity. In one of the best examples of humor exposing absurdity, the always-amazing George Carlin said “The real reason we can’t have the Ten Commandments in a courtroom: You cannot post Thou shalt not stealThou shalt not commit adultery, and Thou shalt not lie in a building full of lawyers, judges, and politicians. It creates a hostile work environment.”

Kevin Paul Kethcart writes about this kind of humor in his book Flying High and Laying Low. “I find truth in humor that exposes humans, their tendencies, their claims, and their delusions—and then holds them up against what is usually irrefutable logic or common sense,” he writes. This is exactly what Crystal, Carlin, and a host of other good comics do.

5. Humor is healing.

Awareness of the relationship between humor and health goes back centuries. The very word humor came from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, who believed that the balance of fluids, or humors, in the body controlled both health and emotion. The writers of the Old Testament knew it as well: Proverbs 17:22 states, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” 

The relationship between healing and laughter has been so well established that I doubt I need to convince many of it. Laughter boosts the immune system, triggers the release of endorphins, and protects the heart. Author and peace advocate Norman Cousins even claimed that he cured himself of heart disease by watching Marx Brothers movies. Many health professionals disagree that you can cure a debilitating illness simply by laughing, but the fact remains that humor is good for us, both mentally and physically.  

If you write humor—or if you want to start—try viewing it as spiritual practice. If you’ve tended, as I did for so long, to see joking and silliness as antithetical to the serious work of spiritual progress, become aware of its connection to truth, observation, language, and healing.  Remember that the sudden, joyous release of laughter isn’t merely natural and enjoyable: It is a doorway to the Sacred.