Laughing through the Pain

Is humor a form of avoidance behavior used only by the weak and feeble minded?

Posted Dec 03, 2013

Is Humor a way of avoiding the hard times in life, or is it a way to get through them? The way you answer that question may depend on whether or not you take humor seriously. Like I do. Like Nora Ephron did. Like Francine Prose apparently does not.

Ms. Prose has written a stunningly snarky piece for the ordinarily fair minded New York Review of Books. Prose’s review of Ephron’s posthumously published The Most of Nora Ephron takes kicking someone when they’re down to a whole new level—kicking them when they are dead. And can’t defend themselves.

But fortunately Ephron can rest in peace as her esteemed reputation as a peerless essayist of a certain type has been defended by the brilliant Janet Malcolm, who is known to be sharp and hard edged, but not mean spirited. Not even to her fellow contributor at NYROB.

To read the full piece by Prose see the November 21st issue of the New York Review of Books. To read Malcolm’s perfect, precise response, see the upcoming December 19th issue, in the letters section of the magazine.

But enough about Prose.  Maybe she just doesn't get the joke. This is a post about humor, and it’s value as a tool for survival.

Ephron, God love her, understood that humor is the ultimate coping strategy.  She used it when writing about her mostly messed up but wonderful alchoholic mother.  She got through an ugly public divorce with both grace and honesty by writing about it. Humorously. She did in a small degree to Carl Bernstein what Charlie Chaplain did in a larger one to Adolph Hitler in his movie The Great Dictator —turning a villain into a laughing stock. Hence, powerless. In Ephron's book and subsequent movie Heartburn, the joke was on Bernstein, not her.  Not only that, she laughed all the way to the bank. Yes, doing well, financially, is the best revenge.

She even managed to keep her sense of humor after having been diagnosed with cancer. She didn't wallow, she didn't divulge her private pain to her readers, or even to many of her friends. That part she kept to herself, though she wrote about it, indirectly, during the last months of her life in a moving  and yes, funny essay disguised as a list called, “What I Will Miss.”

Anyone who writes an essay called “What I Will Miss” is already brave in my book. Anyone who writes it without alluding to their terminal diagnosis is for lack of a better word, classy. And anyone one who starts the list with her kids and her husband, and ends the list with one word,—pie—is immortal.

I once heard Tom Hanks speaking about his not terribly happy childhood. He said he and his siblings got through it by ‘laughing through the pain.’ He wasn’t ignoring the darkness. But humor shines a light that makes the darkness, well, less dark. At least more manageable. And what’s wrong with that?

When I am sad and in need of comfort I like to read the 23rd Psalm and then something by Nora Ephron. Because laughter really is the best medicine. Yes, Medicine. Not just a palliative to cover or manage the symptoms. Humor has been known to heal. Read Norman Cousins book called Anatomy of an Illness. He cured himself of a blood disorder by watching Marx Brothers movies. Laughter literally lowered the toxin levels in his body. Try curing yourself of anything by watching the evening news. Not gonna happen.

Is there any virtue in being pessimistic? Not really. And yes, half full or half empty, a glass is a glass is a glass. But why not enjoy what’s in the glass instead of bemoaning how little is in there and how bad it probably tastes?

And yes rage raging against the dying of the light may be the way for some to deal with death. But I would prefer to enter, and exit, laughing.