I‘m not sure I knew I had a sense of humor until maybe after high school. I remember being so serious then, so very grave, the bearer of many deep troubles for which I had no words. I must have laughed; it’s only that I can’t remember it.
Whatever was real then, laughter is inescapable for me now, and it is never a neutral thing. I’ve developed a keen interest in saying something ridiculous with a straight face, and I’ve grown somehow into a fondness for quiet absurdities. Humor, I read somewhere once, is found in details. I like to laugh at the small things. For me I think it became a way to soften my own intensity, to allow people to find me a little more approachable and relatable. It’s also a way to be angry without quite saying so. A way to despair. Laughter, like I said, is never neutral. That doesn’t mean it’s always happy.
Sometimes I laugh, I think, because I can’t stand that we find certain things to be so damn serious. Or I laugh because, God damn, I’ve almost died so many times that whatever we’re arguing about right now can’t possibly be so bad. Maybe I’m happy to be alive in that moment, happy I’ve survived and for the moment I refuse to be brought down by whatever the hell this is; or maybe I’m mad, maybe I’m dreadfully angry that life can still be terrible like this. Either way: the world tilts a little, and I can’t help but laugh. We laugh instead of crying, or laugh because a bigger perspective is such a wild relief.
Aristotle says that we laugh when we find something incongruous, when two things don’t fit and we realize this. Wwe laugh when we expect one thing, and get another. I think laughter is a way of trying to reconcile those two things, and it can do so either through grace or rupture. Bitter laughter leaves what is divided; joyous laughter unites.
I remember once, a while ago, sitting on the floor in the middle of a terrible mental crisis. The pure emotional strain on my mind was too much, too much, and I sat there, clutching my head as hurtful memories overwhelmed me. I can remember just yelling. An inarticulate, broken thing. A poor, fragmented brain struggling to find something, anything, to relieve the internal pressure. Then the family dog walked by. I thought she might come to comfort me with some kind of magical animal compassion, but no – she wandered on by unaffected. She was old and deaf, after all. What was I really expecting? For some reason, I laughed then, choking, and I kept laughing at myself and the silly dog, and I reached out to grab the dog anyway. She grumbled and squirmed as I wrapped my arms around her, but I didn’t care. Comfort me, dammit.
It’s not easy making sense of the world after experiencing its violence. It’s not easy making sense of the world at all. And even if my laughter in that moment was still mostly tears, it was nevertheless a small reconciliation between me and how isolated I felt. It eased the giant shard of glass out of my heart just a little, just a little, for just a small moment.
One of my favorite little details in the Divine Comedy is that, in Paradiso, Beatrice’s laughter raises them up to each successive level of Heaven. She doesn’t laugh at Dante. She laughs with the grace that reconciles, and so what is lower is brought higher. Laughter elevates. And, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us, a life without humor is a life lived against reason itself.
I laughed, ruefully, when I was told that I might want to stop writing this blog. For reasons and in ways that I still do not entirely know, my vivid descriptions here have hurt me professionally. I could have guessed that would happen, though I was stupid enough to think I might get lucky. (I don’t know why. I’ve never been lucky in my life. But you’re not Irish if you don’t try some luck. Right? So, there you go. I’m an idiot, but Irish Catholic. Or something like that.) I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t angry. I’d also be lying if I said that I don’t get it on some level. I do get it. I do. This stuff is scary, and honesty is hard to hear, even if you want what is best for someone. It has caused me, rightly, to question what to do with all this writing stuff. Being honest here in this space has served me well, and it seems to have helped a couple of people sometimes, which is all I ever wanted: to be a little less alone, and to laugh a little darkly, and to hope that someone else got it, too.
But the world is far from perfect, and the same goes for people, and mental illness is really, really intimidating. Especially to academics. We just don’t have categories for it. Well, we do, but only for those other people, and not for ourselves or for colleagues down the hall. We’re supposed to be invincible.
That’s a complete lie, but we’re scholars. We’re excellent at lying, especially to ourselves about ourselves.
I do see a certain irony in the idea that a traumatized woman was not-quite-told (but definitely told) to be silent, and it does make me smile with a sorrow that I hardly know how to express otherwise. Oh, irony. Sad irony of repetition. Don’t say the sad, bad things no one wants to know.
At the same time, I also have decisions of my own to make, decisions that can really be mine, and these are less certain to me. Suffice it to say that the blog will change in some way, for all the five people who read this space sometimes. I had wanted to say that to you five people somehow. I think I’ll still write, probably, but I have to find a way to write that still feels honest even if it also shifts focus. Honesty was my favorite part of this, and I want to keep it, and if I can’t, then I’d rather not write at all. I wrote this weird blog to be able to try and say things and to ask questions in whatever strange way felt real, and to hope that the words didn’t all fade into the void of nonbeing. That was good for what it was. Now I’ve got to figure out what will be.
I haven’t written so much lately in part because I’ve been doing other work, which is actually a really good sign. It’s a really good sign of healing, for me. But I’ve also fallen into hesitance and worry about what to say in the first place. So, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I thought I’d finally say, here, that I have thinking to do.
It makes me smile. In hope or in sorrow, I don’t really know. Feels like a mix of both.