This year has been one of those years that we will want to put behind us: COVID-19 pandemic, violent protests, economic downturn, divisive elections, travel restrictions, and many other sufferings. Just watching a football game without stadium fans cheering can leave viewers without any passion for the game. Fans may walk away unsatisfied even if their team wins. People talk socially distanced and fear random encounters. If a person dares to venture into a store, they shop as quickly as possible with the purchase made through plexiglass screens. Office workers camp out in makeshift home offices while trying to do the impossible feat of working while caring for at-home children. It is difficult to see any humor during this stressful year.
Church services on Zoom seem sterile. My singing a hymn within a church congregation drowns out my off-pitch voice and heavenly lifts our combined chorus. Singing a hymn on Zoom only magnifies my lack of vocal talent. Large Zoom meetings become more transactional than interpersonal. I attended the fall Southwestern University Board of Trustees all-day meeting recently and I lamented the loss of the most important aspect: one-to-one interactions with my fellow trustees. These informal dialogues allowed for a deeper understanding of the issues and a higher level of trust amongst the Board, university administration, and faculty. Sitting at home looking a forty Zoom Brady Bunch squares on a screen does not induce humor or increase bonding.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor of a Catholic magazine, authored Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2011). If you need a humorous book to add some joy during 2020, then read this book if only for the funny religious jokes. Humor “is a quality or attribute, rather than an emotion. ‘That quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous.’” (page 16) Christian joy “lies in its ability to exist even in the midst of suffering, because joy has less to do with emotion and more to do with belief.” (page 25)
We need humor to be fully human and it springs forth when we show humility and our unequal relationship to an omniscient God. “Laughing at yourself, not taking yourself too seriously, not making every situation about you, not demanding that life adjust itself to suit your needs, and laughing at yourself when you forget all this are good places to start.” (page 196) G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” (page 90)
Karl Rahner (1904-1984), another Jesuit priest and renown German theologian, understood the need for joyful humor:
“Laugh. For this laughter is an acknowledgement that you are a human being, an acknowledgement that is itself the beginning of an acknowledgement of God. For how else is a person to acknowledge God except through admitting in his life and by means of his life that he himself is not God but a creature that has his times – a time to weep and a time to laugh, and the one is not the other. A praising of God is what laughter is, because it lets a human being be human.” (page 200)
Before going to university, I was lighthearted and constantly looking for fun things to do. During my engineering studies, I became more serious and focused on my career, especially when I was later promoted into management. After retirement, I started to relax more and became more joyful. A recent Financial Times editorial, Why jokes at work make more sense than ever (Pilita Clark, October 10, 2020), cites data from two Stanford University lecturers:
“Data from 166 countries shows that from around the time we enter the workforce, we suffer a stunning loss of humor that we do not start to regain until we retire. The number of times we laugh or smile each day starts to plummet around the time we hit 23. Apparently the average 40-year-old takes 10 weeks to laugh as much as a four-year-old does in a single day (up to 300 times). Yet a sense of humor is of far more use to the 40-year-old. A jolting 98 per cent of executive leaders prefer employees who can laugh, surveys show, and 84 per cent think those with a sense of humor do better work.”
Christian joy is the springboard of humor, even during 2020 with so much suffering, divisiveness, and injustice. Joy is a belief in the risen Christ and hope for the new creation. Humor is the expression of joy in the ordinary and humility allows you to laugh at silly situations such as unruly hair because you can’t get a haircut. Talking on Zoom with your mute setting on can be turned into a laughable moment rather than an embarrassment. Being fully human is being filled with joy because we were first loved by a God who created our joyful world.