The last couple of weeks have been brutal. I don’t suppose I have seen so much flutter of excitement in such a short span in my life. First, an infected tooth kept me up nights and knocked me out all day, for a week. Then the pandemic knocked on my dear friend’s door exposing (not for the first time) my helplessness at the face of emotional pain. The battle was won but it has left me emotionally chafed, bruised, and helpless. Finally, an accident landed a close family member in the hospital. An emergency surgery was scheduled and successfully conducted but I found myself circling in Sargasso debris. Although battle-weary from fighting physical and emotional pain, it was time to polish the old battle axe once again.
I am not a naturally funny person. I was not the joker in the class. I am not the person who tells jokes in social gatherings. But I do love to have a good laugh. But when Life throws you one curve ball after another, it is hard to see the humour in it all. How does one find the strength to smile when you or your loved ones are going through physical and emotional pain? How does one separate oneself from one’s own mortality? How does one find the strength to laugh when the stress of the everyday weighs in on us?
Can we train to smile more?
I know how it sounds but perhaps its not such a bad idea to train ourselves to smile. Not the artificial not-meeting-the-eyes kind of smile but the one that relaxes the facial muscles. Perhaps we can think of it as ‘face yoga’ (there is such a thing). Perhaps we can incorporate smiling as part of our morning routine. When we brush our teeth and look at ourselves in the mirror, instead of frowning at that wrinkle or the grey hair or pinching that spare tyre, why don’t we greet ourselves with a smile? Perhaps, instead of browsing the phone, bleary-eyed, the recent news of how the world is falling apart, we can enjoy a morning cup of Joe with Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes? I am the kind of person who believes that we need to acknowledge our feelings and emotions. However, to bring some mirth back, I have come to believe that ‘denial’ is perhaps not such a bad thing after all. At the very least, denial can be a good place to start to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life.
The Five Stages
Although the Kübler-Ross Model is a helpful way to understand how we experience a painful situation but this is too clinically clear-cut. Rarely does a person go through these stages in this order. I believe the graph looks more like this.
However, there is some merit to the graph and if we imagine that more or less we fall in one of the stages, we can look into how we can alleviate the situation for ourselves. By starting with “This is not happening to me”, one may find oneself rummaging through the comedy movies on Netflix. Suggested genre – Fantasy, science fiction (Must avoid dystopian future theme). This can be followed by the occasional rage of “Aargh! Why is this happening to me?” stage. Recommended viewing – All Hulk movies, Anger Management, Silver Linings Playbook and then just follow the ‘related searches’ to find other anger-themed movies. As you go through the next stages of Bargaining, Depression, and then finally, Acceptance, you may find that there is a sort of lightness of being, a kind of lift-off, anti-gravity feeling. It is then that we can start living in the moment. We embark into art projects and spend time doing things that we have always wanted to do but never had the time. But we are still not laughing.
The 6th Stage
I propose a 6th stage. This is the penultimate stage when one is able to find humour in the tiny, mundane, everyday things. I believe it starts with finding beauty in the everyday – that little yellow flower in the grass that pops its head one fine morning, that dazzling pink sunset, the pandemonium of parrots that fills the air with their chatter, the little nest that a bulbul makes among the branches. You zoom in on the minuscule and the ant feasting on a sugar crystal appears as a giant alien creature. Ironically though, it is best not to focus on the microscopic virus currently wreaking havoc in our lives. The key is to focus on miniature things outside of ourselves – our bodies (don’t obsess over that zit), our emotions (don’t fret about how someone made you feel like a nobody and plot revenge), our thoughts (don’t fixate on your negative thoughts especially about yourself). Instead, we need to train our minds to find something funny about a serious situation. We have to train to turn reality on its head and laugh at it.
Find your funny
E.B. White wrote, “Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But it appears that I have been doing just that for the past one week. I have been researching about humour and laughter and I have come to understand that I like different kinds of comedy like self-deprecating and witty wordplay, but mostly I am a fan of situational comedy. I have discovered that there are theories for humour ranging from the great (serious) philosophers like Aristotle and Schopenhauer to the most modern one, which I found to have hit the nail on the head. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny found that what people find funny usually falls in the overlap between something that’s too benign and something that is socially or politically offensive. We are also culturally inclined to find certain things funny and others not. The difference between British and American comedy has been summed up succinctly by Ricky Gervais in the Time article, which states that while Americans are brought up to believe that they can be the next president (and anyone can be, as recent events have proved), British children are told, “It’s not for you.” While Americans believe in celebrating every event of life and not hiding their hopes and fears; the British take up the cause of the underdog, and use irony more liberally. Indians are a different matter altogether. They crack up at David Dhawan’s slapstick, Kapil Sharma’s impromptu wisecracks, self-deprecating humour of stand-up comedians like Zakir Khan, or the insulting humour on roast shows like AIB. But if I have to categorize Indian humour, I would say that the most popular kind doing the rounds of social media and social gatherings is the dark humour kind. They are mostly wife jokes and I find those quite offensive. It would fall on the darker circle of the McGraw and Warner’s Venn Diagram.
Do not shy from laughing at the world
But enough of science stuff. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. What we are going through right now is the biggest joke ever played on mankind. Won’t you agree? It is a joke that we are all stuck inside our homes, secretly wishing we could kill each other but putting on something resembling a smile which sometimes borders on creepy; every single day. It is a joke that we cannot breathe without a three-layer barrier between us and the next person because of droplets. Droplets. What the hell? When I see huge emptiness of the malls, I find it hilarious that a virus is capable of wiping out every sign of human existence in this way. The average diameter of COVID-19 is 120 nanometer. There are one million nanometres in a millimetre. That’s how small it is and yet it has the power to make us cower. That’s right. It rhymed! So, what can we do about it? Apparently, nothing. Until the vaccines arrive. Till then, should we be twiddling our thumbs? I suggest we look at the lighter side. Let us presume that this whole thing is a big comedy show. We are nothing but jokers. It is a big joke when the government decides that the most important business that should re-open after the lockdown is lifted are stores selling alcohol. It reminds me of Roman emperors organizing these big public entertainment events to distract the subjects from their misery and poverty and high taxes. Moving away from the pandemic, the other day, someone shared a video of the Beirut explosion with the message: “Look at the video. It will blow your mind!” You didn’t see the pun, did you? That’s how far we have been unsensitised to the world around us.
Why So Serious?
It is no secret that we will all become atoms in the universe one day. Yet we unabashedly move from one chequered square of Life’s chessboard to another, thinking only of the next move. It takes something as infinitely small as tripping on a stone to make us lose our balance and to remind us of our fragility. We, as a human race, have found infinitesimal reasons to be fraught with negativity. But there is nothing more fun than laughing out loud. Why are we so afraid of showing our lighter side? There is a profundity in Joker’s famous one-liner “Why so serious?” We are gradually becoming way too serious for our own good.
Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical.Ella Frances Sanders
Adulting is not difficult because we crave to return to our childhood. Adulting is difficult because we feel the pressure to be responsible grown-ups. We feel the pressure of being socially acceptable versions of well-rounded adults. We feel the pressure to rise above mundanity. When we peek into social media, we find our ‘friends’ living extraordinary lives. They are travelling, learning, creating, building, growing, adventuring and we feel that we are the only ones stuck in a rut. This relentless live streaming of false/misrepresented information makes life difficult as adults. In the process, what we are losing is our childlike simplicity and happiness that one can find in little things.
Keeping it Simple
The one character that has kept his childlike simplicity intact is Phil Dunphy of Modern Family. In a world gone completely bonkers, the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker families (of Modern Family) have been keeping me company. Whether its Gloria’s crazy quirks or Cam’s big emotions or Claire’s obsessive compulsiveness, it has been a laugh riot in my head lately and I have been feeling so much better for it. But it is Phil Dunphy who baffles me completely. I cannot imagine where he gets his positive energy from. He finds humour in every single thing and I wish I was a tiny bit like him. His almost uncannily unshakable optimism and the simple ways in which he tries to spend time with his family, and especially his children, is not only relatable but aspirational. I thoroughly loved so many of his ideas of being a fun parent. His ‘peer’anting style is unique and although most of the time, his plans don’t work out as planned, his family loves him more for it. He constantly demonstrates how to teach by example while never shying from exposing his flaws as a parent/human being. The one episode that has stayed with me is how he spends a 29th February. He calls it a Leap Day. I feel the same way about that day. It is a special day because it comes around only once in 4 years. We should most certainly celebrate it and make it memorable. Although sometimes Phil’s energy can be exhausting but I wouldn’t mind a Phil Dunphy in my home right now.
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.Viktor E. Frankl
Bring back the laughter
Who are we kidding? It will be a while before we can reclaim our lives. But till then, we can’t have the cloud of gloom hovering over our heads. I want to do more things which are simple and fun. I want to do more things which are silly and spontaneous. I want to do outrageous things and then fail because I want my child to have more memories which begin with “Remember that time when…” A part of me feels that I owe it to him. I’m afraid that our lives are becoming too ‘chalked out’ and ‘pencilled in’ and I want to change that and bring unadulterated belly-shaking laughter back. I believe that this is the perfect time to find some humour or even ‘train’ our minds to look for things that are funny. Inspired by one of the greatest philosophers of our time, J.K. Rowling and mixing a little McGraw and Warner’s ‘science’ into it, I am going to find the things that violate my sensitivity, my emotions, and most importantly, my self-worth, and wave my magic wand and cry out “Riddikulus” to make them benign. I am going to apply all the different types of humour, pay more attention to what’s going on around me, and wait for the punchline. I have come to believe that there is always one lurking around the corner.