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Humor as an expression of psychic and spiritual health


All higher living beings possess an accentuated sense of play. We see it by observing our cats and dogs. But humor is proper only to human beings. Humor was never considered a «serious» theme in theological reflection, even though it is known that is found in all the saints and mystics, who are the only truly serious Christians. Humor had better luck in philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Humor is not synonymous with jokes, because there can be a joke without humor and humor without a joke. A joke cannot be repeated; if repeated, it looses its grace. A tale filled with humor always preserves its grace, and we like to hear it again and again.

Humor can only be understood from the depth of the human being. Its characteristic is to be an infinite project, the carrier of inexhaustible desires, utopias, dreams and fantasies. This existential fact causes there always to be an imbalance between desire and reality, between that which is dreamed of and that which is made real. No institution, religion, state or law can completely contain the human being, even though there exists just such a type of order meant to contain humans. But the human surpasses these determinants. Hence the importance of embracing the forbidden to experience liberty, and for there to be new things. And this occurs in art, literature and also in religion.

When we notice this difference between the law and reality — as for example, in the Catholic moral law prohibiting the use of condoms in these times when AIDS abounds — the sense of humor comes into play. It is laughable, because it makes little sense, and is like whistling in the wind, because no one either listens or pays attention, so that it only can provoke humor. Those people live on the moon, not on the Earth.

In humor is found a feeling of relief from the weight of these limitations, and the pleasure of seeing them in a relative sense, without the importance they give to themselves. For a moment, the person feels free from the debilitating super egos, from the impositions the situation demands, and feels a sense of freedom, as a means of defining his time, of giving meaning to what the human being is doing, and of building something new. Behind humor exists the creativity proper to human beings. Regardless of the natural and social limitations that may exist, there is always space to create something new. If it were not so, there would be no geniuses in science, in art or in thought. At first, they are considered «crazy», eccentrics, abnormal. Much later, a second look discovers the genius of a van Gogh, the fantastic creativity of Bach, almost unnoticed in their time. It is said of Jesus that his friends came to take him away, because they said, “He is crazy” (Mk 3,21). The same was said of Saint Francis of Assisi: he is «pazzus», crazy, something he accepted as an expression of God’s will. And he was a saint, filled with humor and joy, to the point that he was called «the always happy brother».

In more pedestrian terms: humor is sign that it is impossible to define the human being within an established framework. Within his more profound and true self is a creator and a free being.

This is why the human being can smile and look with humor at the systems that try to imprison him within established categories. And the ridicule with which we observe serious gentlemen (for example, professors, judges, school principals and even monsignors) who try, solemnly and with airs of a superior authority that is almost divine, to make others blind and submissive, or to obey their orders like sheep. That also causes humor.

The philosopher Th. Lersch, (Philosophie des Humors, Múnich 1953, 26), got it right, when he wrote: «The secret essence of humor resides in the strength of the religious attitude, because humor sees the human and divine things in their insufficiency before God». From the seriousness of God, the human smiles at human gravity, with its pretensions of being absolutely serious and truthful. They are nothing before God. And there also exists a whole theological tradition that comes to us from the Fathers of the Orthodox Church, that speaks of Deus Ludens (playful God), because God created the world as a game for His own entertainment. And God did so wisely, joining humor with gravity.

Those who live centered in God have methods of cultivating humor. They make the earthy seriousness relative, even their own defects, and they are beings free from worries. Saint Thomas More, condemned to the guillotine, cultivated humor to the end: he asked the executioners to severe his neck, but not to touch his long white beard. Saint Lawrence smiled with humor at the executioners who broiled him on the grill, and invited them to turn him over, because one side was already well cooked; and Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the old bishop of the first Church, pleaded with the lions to come devour him so that he might go quickly to eternal happiness.

To preserve this serenity, to live in a state of humor and understand it from the point of view of human defects, is a grace for which we all must search, and ask for from God.
Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia,

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