Humor & Healing: Time & Taboos

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." George Bernard Shaw

You know what day it is today.  You know it, despite the fact that it's been 11 years.  You know it, despite the fact that the New York Times and the New York Post aren't treating the anniversary as a front page story this year.  You know what day it is today.

Is it a day to laugh?

One of the questions that comes up often in discussions about therapeutic humor - leveraging the healing power of laughter to help us cope better and more effectively with trauma and stress - is if there are any topics that are off-limits, where laughter is taboo.  It's a question that comes up especially at this time of year, when people are confronted, once again, with the memories of a uniquely painful event.

Humor & Healing: What's The Relationship

Before we talk about whether or not it's appropriate to laugh about the events of a particular day, it helps to understand why people want to. The urge to laugh about horrific events is deeply ingrained human behavior. Researcher Bill Ellis discovered people joking about 9/11 within a day of the event - a time at which much of the world wasn't even certain what had happened yet. Most of the humor was targeting those who attacked us.

This use of humor is, among other things, a demonstration of people's determination to regain and exert a sense of personal control and autonomy in a world where suddenly everything had changed. In an environment where people feel uncertain and uneasy, you will see a significant portion of them use humor to make themselves feel better.

That use of humor can, however, make other people feel worse about the situation. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried got hostile responses multiple times throughout his career when he told jokes about traumatic events, including 9/11 and the Indonesian Tsunami. It was, his critics said, too soon.

Time & Taboos: Humor Research That's Changing Our Understanding

Researchers from the Humor Research Labs at the University of Colorado at Boulder are investigating the relationship between time and humor, particularly as it relates to traumatic events. What they've found is perhaps not entirely surprising: It takes more time to laugh at severe events than minor events. Joking about stubbing your toe is a lot easier and more intuitive than laughing about the fact your house burned to the ground.

The researchers were working with individuals, examining traumatic events in their personal lives. However, not all tragedies play out on a solitary stage.  Some events impact many people - entire nations, if not the entire world - all at once. Not all of those people have the same emotional distance from the event. For some people, who lost loved ones that day, it may never be possible to enjoy any humor related to 9/11. They are too close; the trauma was too severe. Other people, at a greater distance physically and emotionally, may find that humor makes it easier to process some of their emotions about the day.

Should you laugh on a day now stained with the memories of tragedy? The private use of humor, for your own entertainment and stress-relief, is most certainly appropriate.  Should you share that humor with others? That decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. Be mindful of your audience's relationship with the events of 9/11. If humor is going to hurt, it's really not funny. If humor is going to help, embrace it.

I'd like to end with these words from Dr. Deepak Choprah, speaking about this day last year. "For me and my family personally, September 11 was a reminder that life is fleeting, impermanent, and uncertain. Therefore, we must make use of every moment and nurture it with affection, tenderness, beauty, creativity, and laughter."

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