Friday, 15 June 2012

Finding funnies and understanding them

Over the years a few people have commented that one of the early signals that all it not well with me has been my inability to laugh at anything when stressed, how my humour or I start to laugh at strange things.

When meeting anyone new, I find it helps to find out what their sense of humour is and if they are able to laugh at themselves. I've developed a wariness and mistrust towards those who can't do the latter as they are often the same people who are so quick to ridicule others when getting angry and upset by people laughing at them. My feeling is that if we cannot laugh at ourselves, do we have the right to laugh at others?

I believe that demonstrating that you can laugh at yourself helps people trust you, warm to you and relax with you. It can even earn you respect, although not if you are continually putting yourself down as 'hairbrained, scatty or crazy'. People from the world of theatre told me of a couple of examples of just how powerful humour can be to put people at their ease about disabilities.

An amputee was wheeling himself about on a stage in a rehearsal for a show he was in. He had lost both his legs and was on a low 'truck' that was like a kid's home-made go-cart. All of a sudden he got stuck and said "I'm terribly sorry, I'm stumped." His friends all sniggered, presumably because they knew what his humour was like, but the regular stage crew who'd not met him before just didn't know how to react at all except to leap up on stage to his aid! Then there was a blind sound engineer who was always complaining that he didn't understand why he wasn't allowed to do lighting.

These are powerful examples of how to turn an obvious disability into something that people need not be so tense about. Certainly learning not to take ourselves or the situations we find ourselves in too seriously can greatly help to reduce stress and anxiety and thereby serve as a preventative to mental illness.

I recommend doing so as possible for ourselves and by ourselves but I also advocate caution about sharing that light hearted approach with others. Other people might not be in a place where they can see the funny side to things even over the same or similar things. This might be due to their personal history, personality or simply down to timing. Any professional comedian will tell you that humour is always down to timing and reading the mood of your audience first, it can take years for them to perfect their art so don't expect to have everyone rolling on the floor in fits of giggles yourself straight off, or indeed at any time.

A friend of mine came over to visit me by train one day, but the train got cancelled so a replacement bus service was provided. When he got on the bus he offered the driver a cigarette instead of his ticket saying (while grinning mischievously) "here's a replacement ticket service!" The driver wasn't at all amused, so my friend let it drop and handed him his ticket. Perhaps the driver had just been in an argument with someone, or was annoyed at having to do a driving shift at short notice when he'd had other plans, or perhaps he wasn't a smoker so was offended by being offered a cigarette - who knows? The simple truth was he wasn't in the mood for that type or humour at that precise moment.

A different type of funny
Humour itself varies from person to person and comes in a myriad of forms. Some people prefer situational comedy, others slapstick and others still may prefer word play and/or spontaneous humour. In Britain irony and sarcasm are used quite widely, but in America it is less popular and often not understood at all. There's zany, off the wall and funny peculiar too. The point is that we each have our own preferences about what we think of as being funny and even then our ability to laugh depends on whatever else is going on in our lives at the time. Losing a job is something few find funny and in those types circumstances our ability to laugh at anything at all can get severely diminished. This can help explain the absence of a sense of humour in others who would otherwise find the same things you do, funny.

It can be even more complicated than that though as a good friend who would normally share your humour could be simply thinking about something else. They might be remembering a happy event, working out a maths problem or thinking about how to arrange a business meeting at short notice. Reading people's body language and facial expressions before sharing a joke can help us decide whether or not it is worth saying at that moment. Sometimes it is better to save it until later.

Perhaps the most useful form of humour is also the form that is most likely to be offensive - dark humour. How many TV shows and films can you name where there is a funeral scene which goes wrong? How much humour is about the difference between men and woman or sexist? Richard Pryor, a black Amercian comedian was ground-breaking when he started to use the word 'nigger'. What he was doing was reclaiming the word so that it could no longer be so offensive.

Comedy of this kind works as a release valve for things we would otherwise find uncomfortable to face or accept in real life. When it comes to the mentally ill, people are often surprised when they encounter sufferers laughing about their illness, but it shouldn't be assumed that all sufferers can or will. Some will be deeply offended by humour of that kind simply because of they've been stigmatised all their lives.

I cannot count up how many times finding the funny side of things has saved me from crashing into despair or helped to rescue me from stress and anxiety. It can be a real asset to be able to draw upon humour to help us through our darkest moments.

A couple of months ago I was having a terrible time. Nothing seemed to be going right at all and problems of all kinds seemed to be hitting me from all directions and then one morning walked into my bathroom and noticed water dripping from the ceiling. In that instant it felt like the last straw, but within a couple of days I found myself joking about it by saying "I didn't have a shower in my bathroom before. I do now. Shame I hadn't got it fitted over the bath itself, but at least it didn't cost me anything."

If we want to release the tension, then we should always strive to look for the funny side and to do that we simply need to see things from a different angle. As a reminder to myself to always do so I bought a fridge magnet which says "This would be funny if it was happening to someone else."

Perhaps hardest of all for the mentally ill is to find the humour about the treatments they undergo. It can feel like you are forever a guinea pig to a mental health team and forever under a microscope to be analysed, so I leave you with an example of humour which I hope you will find as funny as I did and hope it will offend no one.


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