Humor and Humility

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

As I mentioned last week, in a Men’s Group that I once led we read and discussed Huston Smith’s classic textbook The World’s Religions and in it we delved into the tenets and beliefs of Confucianism. In reading about that ancient faith system, I was struck once again with how congruent several of Confucius’ perceptions were with our discussions of intimacy. Basically Confucius created an ethical system that he believed would enable people to become fully human. In the Confucian scheme of things, the good man or woman is the one who is always trying fully to become a human being, simultaneously developing a feeling of compassionate humanity towards others and a respect for oneself, leading to a life rooted in magnanimity, compassion, good faith and charity. In layman’s terms, a good man and woman is a person who is “real”, who is comfortable with and in their “self.” And yet Confucius did not believe that one could attain such a status on one’s own, isolated from others. He believed that apart from human relationships, there is no “self” – that the “self” only comes into being through our interactions with others. The “self” emerges where lives converge – otherwise, to adopt our psychological nomenclature, a life would be dominated by the “I” and “me” and never arise to its human potential. Huston Smith notes that Confucius was passionate about his teachings because he saw them as the means to redirect the whole social order. Smith continues: This conviction made him a zealot, but humor and a sense of proportion preserved him from being a fanatic. For Confucius, the goal of life was to become fully human and to do that one had to become oneself and that could only be done with a healthy sense of humor.

In past presentations I have talked a great deal about our propensity to project, to think that the experience of others and the way that they process reality is the same as our own, reflecting the same thoughts and feelings. As I have suggested, intimacy forces us to shatter and move beyond those projections, enabling us to open our minds and hearts to the complete “otherness” of another human being. Through such intimate encounters, as Confucius suggests, we become our real selves. Intimacy allows and enables us to be ourselves and by doing so, to be fully human. However, alongside our incredible capacity for projection is another mental trait that also inhibits us from developing healthy bonds of intimacy: our capacity for defensiveness.

A few weeks ago, I made some comments about the way that the brain works, noting that when it encounters something new, it immediately seeks to determine whether it is a threat or something it can learn from or about. If it decides that it is the latter, the brain injects dopamine into the grey matter and all the synapses and circuitry relax and can reconfigure in new relationships, new patterns of learning and experience. If, however, the brain decides that there is a threat, it locks down all circuits and adopts a stance of rigid defense. I think we do something similar in many of our human interactions and relationships. When we meet or encounter someone or something that is new, we tend to try to determine if it is a threat and if so we immediately react with defensiveness, locking down all our cherished opinions and prejudices, preparing for an assault. Unfortunately, however, we often misread the situation and misinterpret the intention of the other person and we respond defensively to something or someone that is really not a threat. I am sure that you all have experienced this dynamic. You may, for example, be feeling a bit vulnerable and fragile because things have not gone well at work or in your daily rounds of activity. You’ve had a couple of conversations or experiences that have made you feel a bit insecure even if you are certain it was not your fault. When you come home, your partner asks if you remembered to make those dinner reservations for tomorrow night. You actually had forgotten which is not really that big of a problem, but in your vulnerable state you perceive the question as a threat to your competency and you react defensively, arguing that you had too many more important things to do and after all, if they were that concerned about the damn reservations why hadn’t they bloody well done it themselves. Similarly, we may meet someone at a cocktail party who makes a comment that appears to be an attack on one of our political, social or ideological values and we immediately begin to pull back and marshal our refutations. We don’t really listen to what the person is saying any more because we are so intent on manning our defenses to repel the perceived attack. Like our projections, our defensiveness cuts us off from any sense of openness and vulnerability as we become imprisoned in our own experience and prejudices. When we project or defend, our point of view or state of being becomes the only relevant and operative reality and we are unable to open our minds and hearts to another way of being, of thinking or of feeling.

In my experience, one of the best antidotes to such defensiveness is humor. Humor often helps us to override our defensiveness and open our minds and hearts to a different way of seeing something or someone. It breaks down our defenses, not with the battering ram of logic or argument but with an explosion of good-natured laughter. Humor often enables us, in a non-threatening way, to look at a person or a situation from an entirely different perspective, empowering us to see it not as a threat but as an opportunity to enjoy a fresh perspective. Similarly, it enables us to be open to a different way of thinking and being. For example, imagine that you were a person who was opposed to the ordination of women and were seriously considering leaving the Episcopal Church and going to Rome because of your deep-seated opinion. Now imagine that you are at a cocktail party and I make a derogatory comment about those silly people who still don’t accept the validity of women’s ordination. Think for a minute of how you would respond to that comment. My guess is that your defense shields would immediately go up and you would either make an excuse and leave the conversation or you would begin a well-rehearsed and emotional defense of your position and experience. Now imagine if you are at the same party and you find yourself listening to Ann tell her favorite joke about the fishing party. That joke may not change your opinion but you would probably not feel defensive about it and you might even feel connected to Ann and others by shared laughter.

When I am preparing couples for marriage, I often talk about how humor can remind us of what is really important. I talk to them about how in the years ahead their lives are going to get increasingly complicated as they experience myriad professional, familial and social expectations. Driven by a healthy desire to succeed, they will feel the pressures of their ambition as their commitments and responsibilities increase and they begin to feel the weight of their own hopes and dreams as well as the expectations of others. As that tension mounts, they might find themselves bending beneath that pressure, questioning their ability to succeed and the choices they’ve made, but then by the Grace of God something will strike them funny and they will suddenly see the situation from a new comic perspective. In that moment of gifted laughter, they will see that they have already succeeded because they have chosen each other. They will realize with tears of laughter streaming down their faces that as long as they have each other, they have everything – they have won the lottery, grabbed the gold ring, graduated magna cum laude. And if they don’t have each other, no amount of professional success, no amount of social acclamation or familial affirmation will fill the hole in their heart. Humor has the incredible ability to enable us to see the reality of a situation in all of its comic wisdom.

In a wonderful attempt to re-imagine and describe the drama of the Nativity, that incredible night when salvation entered our world, the author Frederick Buechner chose to see those cosmic events through a cast of Christmas characters, including the memory of one of the shepherds, one of those who kept watch over their flocks by night. That first Christmas Eve, night was coming on and it was getting very cold and this one shepherd was terribly hungry. One of his companions, he noticed, had just finished eating a piece of bread and was getting ready to throw the crust away. The hungry shepherd called out to him, asking him to throw the crust over so that he could take the edge of his hunger. His colleague, however, lost his aim and the bread fell in the mud between them. But the shepherd was so hungry that he picked the crust off the ground, mud and all, and stuffed it into his mouth. As he chewed on that muddy morsel, he suddenly stepped outside of himself and he saw himself as he really was and he thought to himself: This is who I am. I am a man that eats muddy bread. But then he thought, But the bread is good and the mud is good too! and he yelled to his startled companions By God, it’s good, my brothers! As the shepherd remembered that wondrous scene, he recalled that that night We saw everything…everything and it was all good.

That is what humor does. It enables us to stand outside of ourselves and to look at the great comedy of our lives. Remember Aristotle’s definition of comedy. Tragedy is when order gives way to confusion. Comedy is when confusion gives birth to order. If intimacy allows us to be ourselves in the presence of another, humor enables us to see ourselves in the presence of another and to celebrate the goodness of that relationship. Humor reminds us of what is important and laughter among intimate friends is often an eloquent prayer.

When we are able to stop our projections and drop our defensive shields, we can be open to the wonder of other human beings and through that sharing of our common humanity we can be and become ourselves. As Confucius suggested we can find within our minds and hearts a compassionate humanity that empowers us to be ourselves while being open to others and we can then experience a healthy respect for ourselves as fully human. True humility is rooted in self-acceptance and self-acceptance is both the product of healthy intimate relationships and the impetus to expand those intimate relationships through expressions of compassionate love. To return to Buechner’s shepherd, when we can see ourselves as a person who eats muddy bread and yet realize that the bread is good and the mud is good, at that point we have become humble. To be humble is not to be self-deprecating, wringing our hands like Uriah Heap as we recite endless examples of our unworthiness. Humility is not self-abasement, a denial of our natural gifts or abilities nor is it a feeling of insignificance or inferiority fostering a sense of humiliation and a lack of self-respect. Humility arises in our minds and hearts when we become ourselves, when we accept and affirm our gloriously disheveled common humanity. We are humble when we shatter our projections and pretensions and step out from behind our defended opinions and prejudices and affirm ourselves as a marvelously wrought yet deeply flawed human beings, no better or worse than any other human being that walks this planet or has walked it thru the ages. Now if that does not strike you as a daunting and frightening challenge, you are simply not looking deeply and honestly into your own mind and heart.

This past Ash Wednesday, the Gospel reading assigned for Morning Prayer was that marvelous parable from the 18th chapter of Luke where two men are praying in the temple: the pretentious Pharisee who offers his self-satisfied prayer of self-contentment and the repentant tax collector who cries to heaven for forgiveness, beating his breast. It is a powerful and moving comparison but in order to experience its true impact, I think you have to update the cast and the setting. Let’s place the scene in the nave of our own Church and put ourselves in one of the pews. We sit there well groomed and tastefully dressed with an appropriate demeanor of respect and piety, politely and piously offering our thanksgivings and gratitude to God for the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us. We may not feel as smug or self-satisfied as the Pharisee but we are pleased with our life at present and deeply grateful for its abundant gifts. Suddenly in the pew in front of us plops down a tattooed drug dealer, who reeks of alcohol and tobacco and whose hair is matted down with grease. She moans as she pounds her forehead against the pew and tears streak mascara down her pot-marked cheeks. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Now with that image in mind, think about the myriad people you see on the streets of your life every day who you make sudden and snap judgments about without knowing or speaking to them. Think about the myriad judgments you make about people you know when you meet them or when you are speaking about them with your mutual friends or acquaintances. Think about the myriad judgments you make about people when you see them on the news or read about them in the paper. We are constantly making judgments about others, often in a misguided and benighted attempt to make us feel better about our own status and life choices. How often do we stand with the self-satisfied Pharisee, smugly pleased with ourselves because we are not like other people. No, my friends, if you are anything like me, exercising humility is a constant struggle that requires enormous spiritual strength and vigilance.

What enables me to engage that struggle and occasionally find ways to embrace humility are the gifts of humor and intimacy. Locked in a pretentious persona or imprisoned behind walls of defensiveness, someone who knows and loves me will say something funny and in a flash of grace I will be able to step outside my prison and look and see what a comic fool I have become – a man who eats muddy bread. As that laughter frees the fetters around my heart, I am able to be myself, knowing that both the mud and the bread are good and I am the undeserving object of God’s redemptive love. I can then offer heartfelt thanks to Almighty God for the gift of intimacy which allows me to embrace and celebrate the divine comedy of my own life and to share it humbly and honestly with others.

Wendel W. Meyer