“The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail, it has the characteristics of a comedy.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer”
“Man plans, God laughs.”
— Ancient Hebrew sayin
Is Schopenhauer correct? Is life in its details — meaning our everyday encounters with the world — really a comedy? Few of us experience it that way. On the contrary, most feel burdened with responsibilities, cares, anxieties and woes.
This is not to deny that every life has its moments of laughter, the extent of which is dependent upon a person’s disposition. Some people are more saturnine, and others more jovial. But, all in all, the average person doesn’t view their life as a cause for levity. So, even if Schopenhauer is correct about life being a comedy, most people don’t get the joke.
Indeed, life can all too easily become overly serious and oppressively heavy. That is why most of us are in desperate need of comic relief. We find it in TV situation comedies, comic plays and films, stand-up comedians, and jokes. Indeed, sharing jokes constitutes probably the major reason why people e-mail each other.
But here’s the problem with relying on comedies and comedians for our laughs. It can easily become a crutch. It points to an inability — either due to laziness or incapacity — to find our own laughs. And so when suffering comes knocking at our door, our comic sense is too atrophied from relying on jokes and situation comedies to discover, by ourselves, the humor in our predicament.
The other problem with comedies or comedians is that the laughs they provide are generic. They are, for example, about the conflicts in marriage, the workplace, and so on. Thus, they are broad enough such that everyone can relate and share the laughter. The problem is that they lack specificity. They cannot pinpoint the exact nature of one’s own particular life crises and their comic possibilities.
Even were we to attend 20 comedies during the course of the week, there would still exist vast tracks of seriousness — in our own particular life — unilluminated by insight and unrelieved by laugher. Is there a remedy? One idea would be to hire a humor consultant to follow us, through the course of the day, helping us to see the joke in our various activities. But that could be an expensive proposition, as humor consultants have recently become unionized (just kidding!)
Furthermore, even if we could hire a humor consultant, it would still be a crutch. Thus we must learn to develop our own comic capacities. We must strengthen our humor capacities every day. We must, as it has been suggested, press irony.
The Laugh Track Machine
A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. It was about how to keep continually mindful of Schopenhauer’s insight about life being a comedy. It utilizes what one might call “Mark’s Walking Laugh Track Device.” Here is how it works. Laugh tracks are available from the internet, or from a CD that has sound effects. They can then be downloaded to an I-pod.
Thus, at any moment, while walking along, one would easily be able to hear an audience exploding into healthful belly laughter. Ah you are thinking that my new idea does utilize a kind of crutch. But I conceive not as a crutch, but as a training aid. Over time, a person would no longer need the devise. One would then cast aside Mark’s Walking Laugh Track Device like Forest Gump abandons his leg braces.
When, though, would this devise be utilized? There is a Hebrew saying that goes: “Man plans, God laughs.” In other words, life rarely go as planned. Yes, it’s true that something unexpectedly good can happen to us, but that is rare. Of course, the fact that we woke up this morning and so aren’t dead yet is itself a great blessing, but it is hard not to take being alive for granted.
In any case, for the most part life’s everyday surprises aren’t pleasant. We might, for example, had planned to transfer the eggs from the frying pan onto our plate, but the phone rang and we got distracted and the eggs ended up on the kitchen floor. Or our auto mechanic tells us our car now runs like new, but as we drive home we begin to hear a loud clunking sound. Or we planned on a pleasant evening of poker, but our friends get into a fight and the neighbors call the cops. Or we were banking on getting a raise, but our boss tells us that due to a lack of sales everyone is going to get a pay cut. It could be argued that life essentially consists in Charlie Brown running up to kick the football and Lucy pulling it away, at the last second. Upon which Charlie ends up on flat on his back.
Immediately after any such upset, reversal or disappointment, we could turn on the laugh track, and then our I-Pod would send into our ears the therapeutic: Ha! Ha! Ha!, Ho! Ho! Ho!, He! He! He!, etc. We would then remember that our life is but one big situation comedy. This would certainly help us to see the lighter side of everyday annoyances, upsets, and frustrations.
But is It Really Funny?
It could be argued that there is nothing funny about so many of mishaps that befall us everyday. Our eggs on the kitchen floor seem more annoying than anything else and losing a job can be a catastrophe. That is no doubt true. But consider the stuff that comic dreams are made of: humiliations, embarrassments, mishaps, misfortunes, plans backfiring, everything going wrong. Yes, suffering is the cause of laughter.
But here is the thing. When we see people suffering on stage or in a film or a TV show, we laugh. That is because we have a certain aesthetic distance. As its often said, suffering plus distance equals comedy. We laugh at something that happened long ago because we have acquired a temporal distance. Either way, laughter requires the perception of suffering at a distance.
But why wait ten years to find something that happened to us funny? Why not, Laughter Now! Thus my notion of laugh therapy involves helping people develop the necessary distance such that they need not rely on comedians or on jokes for their laughs, and they need not have to acquire an aesthetic or temporal distance. They can acquire a distance based on insight into life. They can, in other words, acquire transcendence.
As the poet Baudelaire wrote: “The man who trips would be the last to laugh at his own fall, unless he happened to be a philosopher, one who had acquired by habit a power of rapid self-division and thus of assisting as a disinterested spectator at the phenomenon of his own ego. But such cases are rare” The quality of being disinterested comes from that distance or transcendence and is the key to being able to laugh at oneself.
Thus time, Mark’s Walking Laugh Track Device would no longer be needed, for in one’s mind’s ear one will hear the laugher — resounding at appropriate moments — as one proceeds through the day.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Dillof