Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Spiritual Irony as Love Lube

Partners who can laugh at and with each other have the best medicine

"The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humor or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances at any subject cross like inter-arching search-lights."

Edith Wharton

I’m having lunch with a friend, a women fifteen years my junior. She’d like to find the right guy. 

‘So what are you really looking for?’ I ask.

‘I’d like it if he was spiritual.”

I can’t think of a word more slippery than spiritual, so I ask her what she means.

“A sense of humor,” she says surprisingly, and it gets me thinking.

Spirit and humor may seem an odd juxtaposition since spirituality is mostly taken to be a very serious matter.  There’s not much irony, whimsy or joshing in Holy Scriptures and spiritual texts, and spiritual people tend to take them selves more seriously than average.

I have my own definition of spirituality though. I define it as one’s answer to a family of related questions:

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  • Knowing I’m going to die, how should I live? 
  • Knowing that I have to let go, how should I hold on?
  • What should I take seriously? What should I take lightly?
  • About what should I be sensitive?  About what should be desensitized?

Spirituality offers two basic answers to these questions. I follow a third option that doesn’t get a lot of spiritual airplay, and humor--specifically irony--is pretty central to it. The two popular responses to those spiritual questions are: 

1. Take one thing seriously: For example, in monotheism take your commitment to God very seriously. If you do, you never have to die. Take everything else lightly since it’s nothing compared to your commitment to God.

2. Take nothing seriously:  For example, in Buddhism be unattached. Laugh whimsically at everything. 

The less popular alternative I embrace is:

3. Take some things seriously and try to guess which ones: Make your life’s work figuring out what to take seriously and what to take lightly as circumstances change. Make your spirituality the ongoing work of cultivating the wisdom to know the difference between what to fight for tenaciously and what to surrender about with a lighthearted laugh.

Now if you and your partner take the same things seriously, you’ll be able to laugh together at everything else, though probably with occasional tense moments when one of you is laughing at what the other can’t help but take seriously. 

And if you and your partner both aspire to take nothing seriously, you should enjoy some good laughs too, but again with some sensitive moments, when one of you can’t help but take something seriously that the other partner is holding lightly. 

Partnerships can bring out the sensitivities in any of us, especially during their formative years after the honeymoon and before sustainable contentment, those years when we have a lot riding precariously on our partner’s tentative respect for us. 

When we partner, we hoist our tottering and fragile sense of self-worth up on our partner’s heads. We feel our self-worth elevated. It’s a high.  But, having entrusted our elevated self-worth to them we become vigilant, hypersensitive to ways in which they might drop us distractedly, carelessly or out of disrespect.

Laughing with each other is bound to make partners feel safer and respected. Laughing at each other can have the opposite effect.  Laughing at what your partner takes seriously can feel contemptuous, and there’s nothing more destabilizing to your sense of self-worth than that.

Sometimes when we’re laughing at something our partner is sensitive about and doesn’t consider funny we get the liberating but false impression that we’re always light hearted and they aren’t.  “C’mon, can’t you take a joke?” we say, as though we always can and they always should.  Putting your partner on the spot that way is rarely going to prompt real levity.  It’s as bad as saying “just relax!” to someone you’re arguing with.

Of course it’s better for partners to laugh with, not at each other. But what about laughing at each other with each other? 

People who follow the third spiritual path don’t have some hard and fast formula to follow for what to take seriously and what to take lightly. They’re trying to figure out what to hold tightly and what to let go.  They forgo one of the main offerings of popular spirituality, some hard and fast formula for prioritizing one’s life. They’re a bit more confused but they’re also more pragmatic.  You can negotiate priorities with them and they won’t throw some Sacred Book in your face as though it already proves what to take seriously and lightly.

They may also more humbled by the task of figuring out what to take seriously and lightly. And they’re humbled by the hard and imperfect work they do trying to change their priorities to fit changing circumstances, learning to take lightly what they tend to take seriously and visa versa.  They don’t have a formula for doing that either.  But they do have a formula for laughing at their predicament. That formula is irony.

Irony means many things. It’s often treated as the same as sarcasm--saying one thing but meaning the opposite--but without the snarkiness. These days irony most often means saying two opposite things at once and knowing that you are, admitting, in effect that you are ambivalent about something, that you’re feeling both sensitive and desensitized at once.

Psychologists us the term “Aspirational gap” for the gap between what we are and what we aspire to be. I coined the term “aspirational tense” for the verb-tense we use when we give voice to our aspirational gap, saying what we hope is true, what we’re trying to make true but what isn’t quite true quite yet:

“I’m definitely fine about losing my hair!”

“I’ve quit smoking!”

“I’m so over her!”

“I don’t have doubts about it any more!”

“No that doesn’t bother me one bit!”

If you hear yourself speaking in the aspirational tense, and you find your internal tension slightly amusing, you can laugh at yourself. You can laugh at yourself with your partner who, knowing you, will no doubt hear the tension too.

The aspirational tense is the spiritual hazard of taking that third, less traveled spiritual path, d, juggling the challenges of letting go and holding on, being half-sensitive and half-desensitized. And irony is its best medicine.

I learned about irony first from my father may he rest in peace, who learned it from masters like George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Menken, my father who used to say things like “I haven’t lived my life in vain for nothing,” a man who the morning after getting a terminal cancer diagnosis farted in bed and said to my mother “cured” as though cancer was that easy to remove, a man who said “Dying is a beautiful way to live as long as it doesn’t kill you.”  He delighted in what he called “Escherisms,” sayings that gave that coming and going sensation M.C. Escher captured in his optical illusions. 

On his deathbed, riddled with cancer, his body a wreck my father said with all seriousness and some irony, “I have a good heart if someone could use it, I’d be happy to know it was of some use.”

It was.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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