Grin and bear it?

Grin and bear it?

Humour is one medicine we all love in wholesome doses. After all, humour nurtures our optimism, our hope against hope for a better future, without which we will sink forever into a mindset of doom and gloom. Monideepa Sahu exhorts us to simply let the fun element rule our imagination.

Once upon an uncivilised time, human life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. As humanity evolved, our woes diversified into more complex and terrifying forms. Life today continues to be nasty and brutish. And thanks to advances in medicine, the torture of living tends to be prolonged. Our distant ancestors braved the terrors of the jungles to hunt for food.

They huddled in caves, in constant fear of unknown dangers. In these technology-intensive times, we brave the perils of the concrete jungle to make money, that ultimate goal of our existence. We risk being run over by traffic, poisoned by pollution, and traverse deadly potholes to reach the workplace. Feral colleagues lurk among the cubicles, out to claw us in order to reach the top. Bloodsucking vampires and ferocious ogres posing as bosses control our lives. Surviving another harrowing day in the treacherous workplace, we return to huddle inside our caves, oops, our apartments.

The big fat ‘Indian Family’ hides much strife within its sanctimonious folds. Stepping out involves negotiating neighbours ready to drench us with acid because our kids committed the sin of scoring more marks than their own darlings. The world outside is great and terrible. Nations are poised on the brink of nuclear war. News reports bring ominous tidings from everywhere. Masked attackers recently knifed and killed innocent people waiting at a Chinese railway station.

War, terror strikes and civil strife are the order of the day worldwide. Mount Everest has become the world’s highest garbage dump, while prices and inflation continue to skyrocket. Our own country has the distinction of being among the three most dangerous places in the world. We can proudly boast of more bomb blasts each year than war-torn Afghanistan or Syria.  Hooligan netas, bloodthirsty terrorists, charlatan businessmen, rapists, corrupt babus, naxalites, unemployable engineers and rash drivers run amok.

It isn’t easy, even for handsome not-quite-so-young leaders, to go forth and change the world with the magic of their dimpled smiles. The power of our votes may only get us a fresh set of unprincipled netas in place of the existing swindlers. Most of us won’t even be able to change our jobs at will, or straighten out our delinquent kids. When we can’t move away from nasty neighbours, draconian bosses or quarrelsome spouses, what can we do to save our sanity? One way to preserve a semblance of mental balance is to change the way we perceive things.

Instead of blaming external situations and stewing in a state of perpetual disquiet, we can take control of the way we deal with that stress. This change in approach may help us better manage our anxieties, rather than letting it take charge of our lives.

Laughter, the best medicine

Laughter is the best medicine in more ways than one. It doesn’t come easily in dire situations, but when it finally does, it can be our saviour. Our first reaction in a crisis is to behave like ostriches, refusing to acknowledge the rock and hard place between which we are trapped. “The country isn’t disintegrating, and if it is, it isn’t going to touch us,” we try to persuade ourselves. When the corruption, toxic wastes or bombs actually hit our front doors, we react with anger. “Why me? This isn’t fair. Let’s find a scapegoat and lynch him.” Next, we try to strike a bargain with the devil.

“I’ll sell my kidney or pay whatever bribe you want. Just let me off the hook.” When that doesn’t work, we sink into despondency. “I give up. Whatever I do, I’m finished. What’s the point in struggling, when we will all end up dead anyway?” Then we see that while the end is near, we are still stuck in that interim waiting period. We begin to accept that while we can’t fight our fate, it makes sense to prepare for it. We see the wisdom in stocking the cellar with dry rations and gas masks in anticipation of nuclear war or the war on corruption.

Seeing the absurdity and humour in a nasty situation can make it easier to bear and overcome. Instead of letting the mad, bad world ruin your health and mental stability, simply let the fun element rule your imagination. Brace yourself to bounce back into survival mode with a wholesome dose of gallows humour. If we can’t change them, we can try to diffuse the threat, anger or confrontation by recognising the ridiculousness of the situation.

Approach matters

Writers can be highly effective at this. Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe says, “The writer’s job is the job of a clown, the clown who also talks about sorrow.” In several of his novels, the main character is compelled to analyse the self-deceptions he has woven in order to survive within his society.

Australian children’s author Ken Spillman says, “Like Advaita, and also Oscar in I Am Oscar (characters in his books), I have used humour and crazy thoughts to get through tough times.”

Humour can be a priceless resource in helping us get out of a downward spiral of defeatist thoughts. It’s easy to blame power-crazed netas, scheming colleagues, ‘the foreign hand’ or organised crime for our troubles. But our own past actions also contribute to our present woes. If we sink into seeing ourselves only as victims of adverse circumstances, we will be blind to our own deeds and attitudes that also helped create those circumstances. We will only blame others without trying to gain the self-awareness and wisdom to recognise the root cause of our problems. Humour can lead us toward that vital self-awareness.

There is much sense in the apparent nonsense of humour. It can help us see things from a different perspective and recognise the factors within our own control, which are perpetuating our current problems. We can then try to change our attitudes in order to prevent those factors from pulling us down in future. Maybe casting our vote or appropriately disposing our garbage could help improve our condition. Perhaps accepting unfamiliar looking people from remote corners of our country as fellow Indians might help ease communal tensions and contribute to national harmony. Those strangers speaking a different language and following different customs might not be monsters or thugs after all.

The fact is, people tend to laugh harder in times of stress. Laughter releases tension, and helps us regain our composure. This leads us to get a better grip on ourselves and make the best of the situation at hand. When we are more relaxed, we can think clearly and deal more effectively with all the troubles and madness of this world. If we cannot avert the sky falling upon our heads, we can at least compose ourselves to face what comes. If we are in control of ourselves, we can still see to it that things do not get even worse than they already are. After all, we need not have to shoot or stab everyone in sight in order to reach bomb shelters in case of a nuclear attack.

A humorous approach can help us divide the problem at hand into smaller and more manageable portions. Then we can sort them in order of their import. And if our inner tensions and anxieties are eased a bit with the aid of laughter, we can act more rationally and logically to find better solutions. The cash we have desperately stuffed into our mattress as a cushion against inflation, may get stolen, eaten by white ants or burn in a fire.

Even if the cash-filled mattress remains safe, inflation will erode its value anyway. If, instead, we take things with a pinch of salt, relax and consider the imminent collapse of the world economy and its possible effects on us more calmly, we may discover more sensible options for maintaining our savings, such as banks or real estate. Humour helps to keep us mentally stable, think more clearly and prevent the disastrous consequences of panic reactions. Humour nurtures our optimism, our hope against hope for a better future. Without that, we will sink forever into a mindset of doom and gloom, and be defeated even before we try.

Humour creates and strengthens human connections and spreads positivity and goodwill. Families and friendships thrive on shared laughter. In times of trouble, members of a social group may laugh to share relief at the passing of trouble. Shared laughter helps ease tensions, and increases trust among group members. People feel more at ease, and open up to each other.

It is possible to diffuse awkward or dangerous situations with the power of shared laughter. Humour can be a peace offering, a means to dispel aggression. It is a wonderful tool in positively changing the behaviour of others. If we can manage to make a threatening person loosen up and smile, we may have won half the battle. This approach worked for me when I was accosted by a gruff-voiced, sari-clad individual at a traffic signal.

She leaned into my auto, breathed pungent odours into my face, and grabbed my hand, demanding cash to ward off her attentions. I looked into her eyes, flashed a cheerful smile, and enquired about the welfare of her association’s leader, whom I had the honour of having met at a conference. She withdrew sheepishly, and went off to try her luck elsewhere.

Punch pays

An academic pointed out that my personal sense of fun fits in with Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque; a subversive approach that turns established convention on its head to expose the absurdity of it all. My laughter dried up when I learnt that august philosophers have been analysing what we consider funny for thousands of years, and killed the spontaneous joy in the process.

Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes focused on the negative aspects of comedy. They held that we laugh when we feel superior at the expense of other people, when we see them as dumber and less fortunate than us. How right those wise old-timers are! Don’t we all know people whose only joy is to pull others down in order to feel superior?

Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard held that humour happens from unexpected outcomes to situations. To make us laugh, a joke must pack a surprising punch. Unlikely situations and unforeseen results are the basis of humour. If we look around us, we will find sources of laughter in ourselves and in the people around us. God bless the anonymous humorists who create and pass around jokes and memes on everything from IITs and IIMs, feminists, communists, exhibitionists, to marriage, divorce and elections. The whole world is a comic scene, and all of us have comic potential.

The health benefits of laughter has scientific basis. Hearty laughter is like a physical workout, increasing our blood circulation and exercising our lungs. If you are fortunate enough to roll on the floor with laughter, you will exercise your entire body and save money on gym memberships. Your immune system is sure to improve, and your digestion too.

Being happy yourself and spreading the sunshine can drive beauty salons and cosmetic companies out of business. A happy person with the natural glow of good humour needs no make-up or beauty treatments. A joyful spirit thus also benefits our wallets. No wonder, laughter clubs are springing up all around us. Forced laughter isn’t quite the same as genuine mirth, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Three cheers for hearty, joyful laughter, free from malice and sarcasm. It’s healthier and much more fun than contrived laughter or malicious jibes. Let’s enjoy our blessings and not dwell upon negative thoughts and possible dangers any more than we need to. Let’s make the most of our time on this beautiful earth, because no matter what happens, none of us will get out of here alive.

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