Why humor is a saving grace and how life gets better with the really? are you so sure? question

I can’t possibly examine my life unless (1) I’m able to take a reflexive stance toward my desires, beliefs, and values and unless (2) I’m willing to test those desires, beliefs, and values. The first condition concerns my capacity to reorient myself toward my life while the second condition stakes the possibility of my thinking well on the indispensable virtue of courage. The paradox of the philosophical adventure has ever been that philosophy is available to any basically, decently rational person but is practiced, and has only ever been practiced, by a select few.

Condition 1: The Reason Why Humor is a Saving Grace. To see why humor is so important to one’s capacity for philosophical self-reflection, let me tell you a story. It’s around noon, and I’m running in Central Park. I’m headed north, not more than a mile into my run by this point, when I see a black guy listening to Janet Jackson, walking along with a boombox on his shoulder. This is patently absurd, I think, completely incongruous with the arcadian surroundings: the autumn leaves, the blighted trees, the gently sloping hills, the bubbling brooks. (This is a second joke, by the way, a spoof of the picturesque, a parody that  Austen was already making of the picturesque aesthetic tradition back in the early 19th C.) Or could it be that running in the park is, in the grand scheme of things, the more absurd thing to do?

Humor of this kind implies that we’re able to stand back from our lives and look at ourselves while we’re in the midst of a scene. It’s as though we were saying “action” and “cut” at the same time. The general test is whether you have the capacity to take any scene you’re in as potentially comparable to the one with the man holding the boombox or the guy laced to his running shoes. The most familiar scene can, at any moment, turn awry: here the too earnest man on the subway; there the girl (still…still!) wearing Ugs at the grocery store; over there the couple in Midtown both scrolling through their BlackBerries, both miffed at the traffic; and over there the guy with the 10 year old cashmere sweater who’s clucking over his herb plant and musing about the fan behind his armchair. God, what a fool that guy is. Oh, but that’s me!

Once we stand back from the flux of our lives, we show ourselves that we’re able to stand back from the brink. Although life is serious (the first lesson of growing older, the lesson that the young have yet to learn), our lives are not so serious that they will go on indefinitely (the second lesson: facing death). Standing back is tantamount to learning, paradoxically, how to live otherwise but also how to die well. How to live otherwise because in this self-reflexive moment we reckon that our lives, having gone this way, could still go on differently from here on out. We are indeed the klutzes who trip on the sidewalk (the actors in scene), but we are also the spectators who look on in amusement (the spectators just off scene) at the klutzes who trip about. But then also how to die well because we practice the art of letting go of this self and then this self and then this self, giving each a slightly comic turn as we say good-bye to each in turn. As we, now the spectators, say our goodbyes…to each in turn.

Sadly, most will remain gripped by the moment, held fast by the pull of the scene, unable to pause and say “cut” and try things over a different way. Unable to step out of character, they may very well go under. Or, Zinfandel in hand, become bored with life. About a week ago, I had to say good-bye to one conversation partner because, in his early 20s, he was simply too earnest, simply couldn’t fathom how to take a step, a half-step, a quarter step, out of his life. Rather, he was caught, pre-philosophically, in the middle amid the buzz and whir. To him, nothing could be amusing and nothing much done.

Frankly, there’s nothing that philosophy can do for someone who does not come to it with open arms, dancing shoes, and a very limber back.

Condition 2: Really? I Mean, Really? Are You Really Sure About That? A while back, I’d been working with one conversation partner for a couple of months before she’d told me a story about a contract that she didn’t fulfill. Why, I asked very gently, didn’t you complete the project. Because, she said, she had the intuition that something wasn’t right about it and that this was God’s way of testing her. To be clear, this woman was highly intelligent, had finished advanced degrees at Ivy League universities (a Ph.D. in fact), had a warm demeanor, was very likable, and could provide clear analyses of her acquaintances, family members, and the broader world. There was a good deal to be said in her favor. And yet, her religious worldview, which was pretty sensible on the whole, didn’t allow for some “basement level” philosophical considerations. I didn’t feel as though I could ask whether this was really a test and whether the scenario didn’t admit of better reasons, fuller explanations, and more accurate accounts of motivation and desire. Once we hit a certain point in our conversations, there was no room for the “Really, are you so sure about that?” question. Wisely, I sat quietly and, weeks later, said my good-byes.

Depending on the context, the “Really?” question can mean: (a) Are your beliefs true? (b) If they are true, are they justifiable? On what grounds? (c) How consistent are your most basic beliefs? How well do they ‘hang together’? (d) Are these desires primary, secondary, tertiary? (e) How about those values: do you really value (e.g.) worldly ambition above all else, because you know, don’t you, that you’re going to die? See this skull that’s–waha!–in my hand? (f) Above all, are you really really committed to, really all in this form of life? Are you in it, all in there, wholeheartedly?

Bear in mind that the “Really?” question doesn’t entail any particular conclusions. On its own, it doesn’t imply letting go, holding on, or leaving everything up to doubt. More humbly, it suggests a holding up to inspect for a time, a holding up long enough as if whatever were being held up were a breath held for a moment or two in mid-breath. We don’t know yet where the “Really?” question will go, but we do know what it signals. It tells us–tells the few courageous, blessed philosophical souls–that we’re not already there. And perhaps this makes us laugh because everyone else assumes as much. We laugh because we’re less unwise now than we were before. Thank God.

2 thoughts on “Why humor is a saving grace and how life gets better with the really? are you so sure? question

  1. I’ve had more than my fair share of P&S (pain and suffering) in my life, and I don’t think I could have born it all without the ability to laugh at it all. The laugher was often more ironic, rueful, and Chekhovian than ha-ha, but it was still laughter. And I think the only way to be able to laugh at the pain at all is by having the ability to stand apart from oneself, to be dispassionate — a very Buddhist approach, by the way (and much of your writing lately has had a strong Buddhist bent, but that’s another conversation). And then to accept that it’s all part of the game. Wasn’t always easy to do this, in fact sometimes it was well nigh impossible, but it was always worthwhile.

    At first glance, it would seem to me that the woman in Condition 2 wasn’t being truly honest with herself. I’ve seen friends rationalize similarly, but that’s all it was, rationalization. And the kind of honesty — and integrity (don’t see how one can divorce the two) that would allow for a straightforward examination of what aren’t really “basement level” philosophical considerations aren’t necessarily cohorts of intelligence; in fact, all too often they aren’t.

    By the way, I have really enjoyed your posts the last few weeks — very thought-provoking.

  2. Let me, like T.S. Eliot, end at the beginning with a thanks. Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. Thanks for enjoying. Just: thanks.

    Who knew that there was a shorthand for pain and suffering (S&P)? Something of a paradox, I’d wager: a short-hand for experiences that, for many, remain long in hand and heart and head. I love that you allude to Chekhov. With good humor, we are looking for a moment’s uplift, a good breath, or wry smile. A belly laugh, when it comes, is good, but we shouldn’t judge a good judge by such a crude yardstick. Good humor is like good taste: very nuanced, very discriminating, and appropriate for the occasion.

    (I went through a period where I’d only tell bad jokes the aim of which was to elicit *shared groans*. It worked.)

    I’m not sure about your interpretation of my 2nd conversation partner. On my charitable reading, she was not self-deceived (Descartes’ Evil Demon problem, as it were). It was more like a Weltbilt problem. There was no getting round the thought that a Weltbilt can be internally coherent and consistent but not sufficiently capacious. To take an event and only be able to interpret it in such-and-such a way is rather like only being able to stand on certain ground and, from there, only see certain vistas. I felt as though I couldn’t get her to *turn her head* and *walk in this direction with me*. So we had to part. And that’s OK.

    But that’s just to say that she really wasn’t ready for philosophy because philosophical self-reflection, frankly, is beautiful but also exceptionally demanding. You can’t beg off examining your life. You can’t pass. You can’t turn aside from seeing whether your most fundamental commitments hold up. And, as Socrates pointed out and as many of my conversation partners have found, you very well may arrive, for a time, at a state of aporia: knowing that your old beliefs don’t hold water but having no beliefs, for the time being, by which you can live. Speak of P&S! And that is not an intellectual exercise. That is damned tough. Really, really tough and requiring, among the other virtues, courage. Courage in face of despair.

    On some of these points, see my piece on the hardness and the softness of philosophical practice. The long and short of this too long post is that not everyone is ready for philosophy. Perhaps with time, some may be…

    Have a lovely weekend,


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