A grandmother walking with her lavishly dressed grandson by the sea watches helplessly as a rogue wave drenches her and carries the little boy away. The grandmother prays fervently, “Just bring him back to me.” Immediately, another wave deposits her tateleh back on shore. She looks at him and then up at heaven, declaring, “He had a hat.”
I first learned the power of humor from a camper named Howie. As an aspiring seminarian, I was encouraged to spend a summer at Camp Ramah in New England. I ended up in the Tikvah program, the camp within a camp for children with special needs.
Developmentally delayed and nearly blind, Howie was a mess. He barely had survival skills and was always late. But he took his time with a smile on his face and an infectious laugh.
One night after a camper was found masturbating in what he thought was a private way, our director, Herb Greenberg, came into the bunk for one of his “sex talks.” He spoke about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and then asked for comments.
Howie spoke and told us how he’d been constantly harassed by the students in his school until he discovered humor. He told of a time when they wanted him to give them blowjobs. “I told them I couldn’t do it because I was a vegetarian,” he said. “They laughed so hard that they started leaving me alone and I realized that even though I am different, I can still protect myself – I just had to learn how.”
Personally, I have found that frustration and anger, when tempered by humor, can avoid and defuse potentially ugly confrontations. Even the lamest attempt at humor can change the direction of an interaction, steering it eventually into a more appropriate and problem-solving dynamic.
What makes humor so powerful? For one, it gives us the illusion of control over the uncontrollable.
When my mother was slowly dying of cancer and the chemo took her hair, I bought her a present – a hat that said “no hair day.” It allowed her to announce her illness without answering questions. It kept the merely curious away from her and invited those who cared to step closer. Most importantly, it allowed her an editorial comment on her condition. When by accident the wind blew her hat away and her students saw her baldness, it allowed her to say, “See what happens when you don’t eat your vegetables?”
I remember once when my contract was up for renewal and the synagogue president cast the deciding vote (in favor). At a dinner honoring him, I was able to say, “We can categorically state that without him I would not be here today.” A well-needed laugh converted what could have been a divisive tenure.
Humor can give us strength to be ill but not to become our illness. One of the dangers of chronic illness occurs when the patient overly identifies with the condition and allows it to control their reality. The phrase, “I am a diabetic” is very different from “I have diabetes.” The use of humor keeps the illness identity at bay by making it an object to be described, not a condition to own.
It also informs us of the human condition and gives us perspective. ‘He had a hat” tells us that as humans, we are rarely satisfied even when our prayers are answered and perhaps we should be kinder and more forgiving of a God who has to put up with us.
But overall I think the greatest power humor has is its ability to subvert the powerful and empower the weak. Confronting anti-Semitism in Mississippi or in prison with self-deprecating humor helped diffuse situations that could easily have led to physical conflict.
Finding the smile in the face of disappointment shows courage built of resilience and strength.
We must always give ourselves time to lean into our pain for you cannot avoid what seeks to overwhelm you. But finding the strength to find the irony, the ludicrous, or just recognize the inability of life to be smooth can hasten our ability to overcome, adapt and grow from the experience.
In these days of pandemic pandemonium we should all recognize that we may all lose “our hats” through the wave – but we will find ourselves back on the shore with those we love.