FDL Late Nite: Humor, Humility and National Trauma
This morning, Christy observed how we’ve all been a bit on edge lately. With all that’s going on in the world, we’d have to be unaware, obtuse or completely lacking in empathy for our fellow man not to be (at the very least) on edge.
But we also need to laugh. Here’s a little bit about the health benefits of laughter.
The silly bit above from the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup makes light of what had been a national traumatic experience in World War I, the so-called "war to end all wars" (if only!). This is lighthearted camp, but it is born of real national experience of the senseless, fruitless slaughter of literally countless people.
They say comedy equals tragedy plus time, and perhaps the work of the Marx Brothers is proof. Maybe we can’t laugh much yet. But then again, for our own health, sanity and effectiveness as a movement to bring about change, we must laugh, for it is through laughter that we can begin to regain perspective and reconnect with those around us, even those who are our friends and allies.
To begin to laugh, one must first have some humility. Lincoln, the great binder of national tragedy, recognized this in his Gettysburg Address, when he said,
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Lincoln, it must be said, went on to give meaning to what until that time were considered to be fruitless, meaningless deaths and slaughters:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln, progressive populist, opponent of the forces of landed power and privilege, civil rights pioneer. Utterly unlike today’s Republican party. It’s no accident, I’m sure, that Lincoln was known personally to be, well, a really funny guy. Only those with the ability to laugh, especially at themselves, possess the power to heal from great tragedy, and to show others how to heal as well.
After 9/11, we spiraled into senseless, stragically stupid aggression in Iraq because we lacked the will or ability among our leaders to guide us with perspective, and as a nation, we went along for the ride (binge?). We wanted to prove we were powerful, and in so doing, diminished our power and made manifest our ever growing weakness. That’s what Republicans have to offer: weakness. Unlike Lincoln, we failed to recognize our power comes from our ideals and humility, more than from our might of arms or inclination to lash out. Though in the modern world, we are more powerful when we remain true to our friends, instead, we’ve become an international liar and a bully.
Hard to laugh about that, I’ll grant you, and yet, laugh we must, somehow. For it is through laughter and some humility that we can regain perspective, returning to our ideals, so that at least here at home, government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. We are, after all, common people for the common good. War isn’t funny, but our resilience as people in the face of national tragedy is worth celebrating through humor.
Let the killing binge cease. Those who remain captive to national traumas act so as to perpetuate them. In clinical work, I’ve seen more than one case of the rape or sexual abuse victim spiraling into substance abuse or destructive relationships with the result that the essential conditions of the original abuse repeat themselves. Slaves to their traumatic experiences, these poor souls recreate them over and over, perhaps as some primitive attempt to gain ultimate mastery over the experience with each sequential reenactment, hoping one day to be free and whole again. This repetitive cycle can even turn a one time victim into a newly minted, violent offender, so that the blinded, self-justifying victim performs the very acts to which they had been victim in the first place, or even worse.
Nations and ethnic groups can do this as readily as individuals can: indeed, we need not read beyond the day’s front page headlines to see this repeating cycle in action ("collective punishment," anyone?). In my past clinical experience, one of the best prognostic indicators for such a suffering victim is the presence of a healthy sense of humor. If we can but step back and laugh, we ourselves need not remain captive forever to our own national traumas. We’ve done it before.
In that spirit, I give you Duck Soup.