TAKING HUMOUR SERIOUSLY
On my early morning walks during the month of October I have been praying the rosary. I tend to recite the sorrowful mysteries on Wednesdays and Fridays; the joyful mysteries on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the glorious mysteries on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Mondays (if I go for a walk) I tend to recite the Transfiguration mysteries. It is quite amazing how powerful these prayers can be. I offer up each decade of the rosary for a specific intention; so for example praying the first sorrowful mystery, the Agony in the Garden, I might remember my brother Steve, who has just been in hospital with prostate cancer complications; or during the mystery of Jesus dies on the Cross, I might remember people who have died recently, especially in the parish. I often pray for the people of the parish in the joyful mysteries and even for the priests of the diocese and deanery!
Whenever I pray the rosary I always feel more uplifted and positive in my outlook not just for the day, but for the future in general. I even find that I chuckle to myself when I am reciting the rosary, as I am reminded of the joke I told at St Joseph’s school on the occasion of my 25th Anniversary of my ordination. I was invited over from Mexborough to co-celebrate with Father Brian on his 75th birthday. This was the joke: This elderly lady bought two parrots and brought them home in a cage. She tried to get them to talk, but all they would say was, “we are a couple of prostitutes and we’ll give you a good time.” When a friend of the lady came round the parrots would blurt out, “We are a couple of prostitutes and we’ll give you a good time.” Well it was so embarrassing for the two ladies. But the visiting lady says, “Listen, the parish priest down the road has a couple of parrots, so maybe he could advise you on teaching your parrots some good manners”. So she goes to visit the priest and tells her the problem. The priest tells her that his parrots are very pious and they sit in their cage and recite the rosary every day with their little beads, and suggests that she brings her parrots down to his house and put them in the cage with his parrots so they can teach her parrots some good manners. So the lady brings her parrots and puts them in the cage with the priest’s parrots. The lady’s parrots pipe up immediately “We are a couple of prostitutes and we’ll give you a good time.”Then one of the priest’s parrots says to the other parrot, “OK you can throw those beads away now, our prayers have been answered.”
It’s amazing how a sense of humour has got me through many a hard time, including my time of illness, about this time last year when I was on sick leave for several months; and of course during this pandemic. I read recently about a guy whose brother awoke to dreadful news. The brother was on a business trip to Mali, staying in the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. It had been stormed by Islamist militants and, ultimately, 170 hostages were taken, 20 killed. The brother was on the seventh floor. Gun battles exploded directly below him. Escape was not possible. He locked himself in the bathroom, texted his wife, his family – and his brother: “Things are a little tense inside the Radisson, at the moment bruv, any English humour available?” He was looking for something to make him laugh. “Is the fridge stocked?” said the brother, “they probably won’t charge you for it.” The siege lasted three hours; its tense, poignant and peppered with the brother’s humour. “Just checking....did you cancel your business meetings for the day?” And “what will you write on the hotel’s ‘Tell us how we did’ card?” Just for the record, he was finally rescued and Malian commandos saved his life, but humour helped carry him through. It helped him stay calm, intact, himself, under unfathomable pressure.
I think we need such humour during this coronavirus pandemic even more than ever. Some people think it is too serious to joke about, but I think the opposite. There has been a shift to remote working, loneliness and depression rising precipitously, many of us have never felt so disconnected. When we laugh with someone – whether through a screen or two metres apart – we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthen our emotional bonds in a way that would not otherwise be possible. According to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, studies have shown that humour makes us more resilient, creative and resourceful.
Though I’m sure that some people believe, implicitly or not, that humour has no place in serious times, that it might mean we are not taken seriously, but I tend to believe the opposite. I remember Michaela Coel, who wrote and starred in the hit series I May Destroy You, which was based on her real experience of sexual assault, saying that much of the programme’s power is created through humour, because, it’s still present in the lowest moments, “the uninvited guest at a party.”
Much research has shown that laughter triggers the “happy hormones” and suppresses cortisol, the stress hormone. It increases blood flow, and is a muscle relaxant. A Norwegian study of more than 50,000 people found that those with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those who scored lower. However, recent studies suggest that the rates of laughter plunge at the age of 23 years, just as we “grow up”. It’s interesting that the same study show that a four-year old laughs 300 times a day, while a 40 year old laughs 300 times every 10 weeks!
This humour business is not about cracking jokes, it is about living on the precipice of a smile and being open to humour. There is an old saying, “comedy equals tragedy, plus time.” Finding ways to laugh through hardship reminds us that we are in control of our heart and mind, whatever darkness lies behind the door – and that, in itself, is a triumph.
Though the Gospels give us the impression that Jesus was a very serious man and there is nothing about his crucifixion and death that gives us any reason to smile, there is however, much evidence that Jesus had a remarkable sense of humour. All through August and the first half of September I visited the houses of our first holy communion candidates and celebrated their first holy communion with them. The reading that I used for most of them was from Matthew’s Gospel about the lost sheep. Jesus says, “Tell me, suppose a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them strays; will he not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go in search of the stray? I tell you, solemnly, if he finds it, it gives him more joy than do the ninety-nine that did not stray at all, and he would throw a party for his friends and neighbours because he has found the sheep that was lost. Similarly, it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt18:12-14)
What we don’t realise here is that Jesus, being a masterly storyteller, was in fact telling a joke. Much is lost in translation of course, and the scripture writers would not want to trivialise the message of Jesus, but a closer examination of the text shows us a deep sense of humour mixed in with a beautiful message. First of all, we must appreciate that shepherds were the “pits” of society and people in the time of Jesus would often “take the mickey” out of them. So, when Jesus mentioned a shepherd, it would be as if he was saying, “There were an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman…” His hearers would immediately recognise that there is a joke coming up. Secondly, when one sheep strays he leaves ninety-nine in the wilderness, which is a crazy thing to do, and goes off in search of the one lost sheep. Then when he finds it, he does not go back to the other sheep, but goes off and celebrates with his friends and neighbours! He may have found his lost sheep, but he has now lost ninety-nine of them! A shepherd rejoicing over one sheep that had been found and now lost ninety-nine of them – what stupidity is this? Of course, Jesus would not tell jokes simply for the sake of it, but brilliantly incorporates a message into it - “Oh, by the way, that’s what God is like” “What!” his hearers would say, “God is like a stupid shepherd?” That’s right, he is so concerned with the one that is lost and found, as if it was the only one in the whole world that matters – that’s how much God loves each one of us! He rejoices in ME as if there was no one else. What an incredible message and what amazing humour.
In the early Eastern Church, there was a lovely tradition that on Easter Sunday morning families would gather together around the breakfast table and tell funny stories and jokes. This was in imitation of the great Cosmic Joke that God pulled on Satan, with the Resurrection. Just when the Devil thought he had won – Jesus, after only three years of ministry ended up dead on the Cross, all his work had come to a tragic end, the disciples had all fled and all was lost. But the malevolent smile on the Devil’s face was soon wiped off when God raised Jesus from the dead and God had the last laugh. Is it any wonder why I tell a joke at the end of Mass?