“Joe, we visited the doctor today, and I have some bad news.” my dad said “The doctor said I could well live another five years.” then he shouted to my mom across the house “Lucille, Joe turned white as a ghost at that grim news.”
Another time my dad and I sat at the kitchen table, and I listened to him go on about pharmaceutical industry and Medicare D prescription coverage. “Now with this medicine, I buy two months at a time, and I get a third month free!” I interrupted “Now Dad, I hope that if you ever feel that you may not make it three months, I hope you’ll have the consideration to not go so long on pills, we can’t exactly resell them as you know.” He laughed, marching excitedly out of the room and shouting to my mom “Lucille, you need to hear the instructions your son is giving me!”
As inappropriate or even offensive as these exchanges may seem to some outsiders, they are not the product of thoughtlessness or a lack of consideration. In fact, it would probably surprise outsiders to learn just how important humor is to us. It is because of this importance that we persist, and fumble with jokes that often miss the mark, sometimes offend and regularly elicit eye rolling. Humor is one of the most treasured gifts my father handed down.
I’m continually surprised to learn how serious, thoughtful, dedicated and disciplined the good comedians are. It really piqued my curiosity to understand what is so important about humor that drives them (and my family) to persist.
Perhaps there are nearly as many ways to use humor as other forms of language. It can certainly be used to hurt, insult or degrade, but less is thought about the positive ways it is used. I came up with a couple reasons it’s so important to our family.
Humor Increases the Bandwidth of Communication
Think cursorily about how to measure the throughput or bandwidth of human communication and you’d probably think of a measure like words per minute or the like. But as anyone knows who’s witnessed a dysfunctional relationship, there are often a large amount of words exchanged, often at high volumes and rapid paces. These words are comprehended, but not absorbed or accepted.
In fact, bandwidth can really be better measured by the effort associated with communication. When words carry the baggage of insult, embarrassment, awkwardness, they get rejected, or sometimes just never uttered at all. Sometimes this is because the concepts are inherently difficult to absorb, but sometimes they are very pleasant, but just out of the ordinary and just awkward to convey. Sometimes they are surprising or hard to believe. In any case, when words get weighed down, the throughput throttles and talking becomes argument, where there’s noise but very little actual communication. Eventually the effort for every bit of communication grows so high, communication shuts down altogether.
Take my dad’s five year joke as an example. Under the surface of this seemingly crude joke is a very serious and important message. “I am comfortable with my mortality, and I want you to be too.” Yet, deliver that message directly and it’s not only fairly unconvincing, but relatively awkward as well. Had he delivered the message directly, I would have been obliged to acknowledge it with “yes, I know.” even though it wouldn’t have been terribly sincere, and the whole exchange would have been unpleasant and tiring. Instead, what he delivered was terribly convincing and my acknowledgement in laughter was automatic and inherently honest. With humor, he didn’t tell me he was at peace, he demonstrated it. In the span of a few effortless seconds, he conveyed it, I acknowledged, and he passed along the whole exchange to my mom.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, most of the jokes miss the mark or fall dead, but it doesn’t take a 100% hit rate to get the point across.
We are a family that says “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” a lot, but the truth is, the bulk of our most meaningful and intimate communication isn’t done so directly, its done through stories and jokes because that’s where the real throughput is. An extemporaneous joke or story can often convey what a long essay would struggle to do.
Humor as Celebration
Like many families, we come together for cookouts, birthday parties and holidays. We blow out candles and open gifts and share dinners. But the moments we really celebrate the bonds that join us are the moments we joke.
“We’ll move our families into a single room shanty before Dad is denied a single pill he needs” my sister muttered after hearing one of our exchanges. Indeed we all believe this is true, and it is a source of great pride. Yet there is no party to celebrate this. Instead, we celebrate it with humor. Our jokes dance over the subjects that should bring great discomfort but where none is found. We set our priorities and have dedicated ourselves to those sacrifices long ago, and now we can celebrate what we have built.
I believe in humor, I believe in its power to convey important and difficult information and sentiments and, as a result, you’ll find me struggling and fumbling for the rest of my life. Like my dad, I’ll endure rolled eyes, blank looks and the occasional offense because every now and again, I will get the magic recognition that something really important has been communicated, and I’ve told a loved one something that I just could not say any other way.