Hang On to Humor as You Slide toward the Grave

We’re all sliding toward the grave, and older people naturally think about it more. Maybe that is one of the reasons many old people sink into despair. I say, “To hell with despair.” We all know where we’re going, so let’s have some fun along the way. Humor surely gives as much help for despair as a shrink, and it’s free.

  • A lawyer called his client overseas to tell him his mother-in-law passed away. “Should we order burial, embalming or cremation,” asked the lawyer. The fellow replied, “Take no chances—do all three.” (unknown author)

How Humor Works

It may not be possible to precisely explain humor. E. B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web,” once compared humor to a frog—dissecting either one will kill it.

Many people have varying senses of humor—one person’s smile is another’s belly laugh. Some find humor petty and distracting—they prefer to stick to serious problems, pontificating here, moralizing there. To hell with them, too.  Even a small joke is more engaging.

  • A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar. (Mark Twain)

Humor helps distract us from being too serious about life’s goals and problems. When I’m buried in a serious task, struggling against life, humor relieves the tension and sets me free. It seems to work that way for many.

At a party, for example, when a first-class bore begins preaching about religion or politics, nothing relieves the pain quicker than a clever, humorous barb.

Humor works so well because it usually points to truth, then enlarges it to the point of absurdity or incongruity, which allows us to see a context in which what’s serious and true grows smaller, less threatening or less demanding. That relief allows us to laugh.

In humor, we love to see the justified or unexpected: a pompous person deflated, a fool trapped, a selfish person losing, a cheater cheated. Humor and seriousness complement one another, add to one another, producing a richer whole. Without humor, a person is small, yet with only humor, a person is likewise small.

Humor works best in short bursts. A long, rambling joke or tale may be funny and cause a chuckle, but short, staccato volleys of humor, along with good timing, tend to work better.

I recently read, “The Nororious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain. The tale is famous and included in many anthologies of American humor or short fiction. There are many funny descriptions within the tale, but in the end, when the chronic gambler, Jim Smiley, gets tricked by a stranger who filled Jim’s frog with lead shot, thereby preventing the frog from jumping to victory, a reader is left a little disappointed—the story is too long for the lightness of its humor.

Yet Twain’s one-liners often cause great laughter.

  • I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it. (Mark Twain)
  • I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way. (Mark Twain)

Anyone with an Internet connection can search for jokes and turn up page after page of uproarious humor. Then a person can memorize one or two and tote them along to a party. If everyone at the party did that, good fun would glow like the morning sun.

In Later Life

New aches and pains visit us older people every month or so. We tend to take them seriously, make an appointment with a doctor, struggle to remember it, then share with our doctor all the symptoms we can think of, all the circumstances attending them, and all that we have heard from friends or relatives. If we can’t go to a doctor, we suffer at home, doing as best we can. As these events grow, as they surely will, we want to mourn or maybe wail about our lost youth.

Suffering is the drama we add to pain. I read something like that once and shortened it a little for my use. Everyone experiences pain, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, but some of us seem to enjoy it, share it with everyone near and far, and inflate ourselves with the magnitude of our grief. There is a better way—humor. Some scientists say humor helps us endure pain.

Make a joke about your pain, then another.

  • In the old days the best painkiller was ice; it wasn’t addictive and it was particularly effective if you poured some whiskey over it. (George Burns)
  • I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage. They’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry. (Rita Rudner)
  • Modesty is my best quality. (Jack Benny)

Pretty soon you will be ready for other people.