Karyn Buxman, MSN, CSP
Following the events of September 11, 2001 and the
terrorism that's ensued, I've continued traveling around the country,
addressing groups about the healing power of humor and laughter. I've
heard a variety of comments:
"I really want to laugh, but I just can't bring myself
to do it."
"I can't bear to watch another news report-it's sucking the life right
out of me."
"I feel like laughing, but I'm afraid other people will think I'm being
inappropriate. Is it really okay to laugh yet?"
Abraham Lincoln may have said it best: "With the
fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I
|Now more than ever, we, as individuals and as a country, need the
healing power of humor and laughter to deal with the tragedies we've
experienced. Recent reports have shown that the country is in poorer
health overall than it was prior to September 11th. Accompanying the
levels of higher anxiety and stress are people suffering from a myriad
of stress related illnesses and conditions: Headaches, stomachaches,
general malaise, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, muscle aches, difficulty
concentrating, depression, and the list goes on.
People find many ways to cope with their stress
including unhealthy means, such as abuse of drugs, alcohol, food, sex
and work among others. A healthy person needs a variety of coping
mechanisms at his disposal, as there is no single coping mechanism that
will be right for every situation. Humor should be one of the many tools
one carries in his repertoire, as it is recognized as one of the healthy
coping mechanisms we have available at our disposal.
Humor relieves anxiety and tension, serves as outlet for
hostility and anger, and provides a healthy escape from reality. It
lightens heaviness related to critical illness, trauma, disfigurement,
and death. It comes as no surprise that many people are utilizing humor
to deal with the trying times. But is the humor timely? Is it
"When tragedy and death cloud our lives, they
darken our humor as well." (Karyn Buxman, This Won't Hurt A Bit)
Much of the humor that we have seen since 9/11 is what
has been referred to as gallows humor, dark humor or black humor. In her
book, Humor and the Health Professions, nurse researcher Vera
Robinson explains, "(Black humor) is a humor that people have always
used when they feel hopeless and helpless, when there is nothing we can
do to change what has happened. Black humor is a defense against the
horror against whatever it is we fear and is a way to master it, and
give us a sense of control by laughing at it."
The truth is that we all experience tragedy on a variety
of levels. For some of us, it may be on a personal level. At times, it
may be on a community level. And periodically we experience tragedy on a
national or even global level.
On a personal scale
None of us will escape experiencing personal tragedy: Illness, accident,
loss of job, divorce, or death in the family. These painful ordeals can
sometimes evoke humor that allows us to ventilate our frustrations about
such unfair events in life.
Sometimes when we use humor to cope, others discourage
us with comments about the inappropriate nature of the humor. One
patient told me that when making a joke about his cancer his daughter
admonished him by saying, "Dad, you must not understand just how sick
you are or you wouldn't be cracking jokes about this."
Author Allen Klein asked terminally ill patients about
the use of humor and laughter during their illnesses. Over three fourths
of those surveyed said they wished their care providers and support
persons would use more humor and not discourage them (the patients) from
On a community scale
Communities experience tragedies such as floods, earthquakes, fire,
natural disasters, loss of industry or politicians caught in
1993 marked 'The Flood of 500 Years' on the Mississippi
River. Communities along the entire river experienced flooding,
destruction of property, loss of homes and jobs, and sometimes death.
Yet, humor marked the will of people to keep their spirits afloat, not
to be oppressed and depressed by the Muddy Mississippi. In Iowa the Des
Moines Register held a contest, "I'm a Floody Mess," where contestants
tried to one-up one another with descriptions of their misery. When the
local water system failed as a result of the flood, and running water
for drinking and bathing was no longer an option, one contestant wrote,
"I smell so bad that my Sure deodorant is undecided."
On a national scale
Unfortunately we will witness events that have national ramifications,
such as the Shuttle Challenger explosion, and even global ramifications,
such as the loss of the World Trade Center in New York. With the
technological advances in mass media, events that might once have been a
local tragedies now impact people near and far: The shootings at
Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, the death of Princess Diana. These
events hit home through television, radio and print around an entire
nation and beyond.
At times, the humor demonstrated after these events was
a 'hoping humor', a "let's hang in there together and we'll get through
this together" kind of humor. The focus of the humor was more
situational and unrelated to the tragedy; the humor was used as a relief
mechanism from feelings of sadness and feeling overwhelmed. One survivor
of the Oklahoma City Bombing commented, "I laugh because I'm cried out."
While we certainly see many examples of 'hoping humor'
related to the tragedies of recent terrorism, we also see 'coping humor'
or the humor that is used to express anger in a socially acceptable way.
By targeting humor at the 'enemy' or the oppressors, we are able to
whittle them down in size and feel more powerful, more superior.
Some of the humor since 9/11 has been grotesque, such as
computer exercises allowing us to shoot Osama bin Laden in virtual games
or blow up terrorists with a keystroke from the comfort of our own
computer. Some humor has been less violent, yet still targeting our
enemies. An example is the following e-mail forwarded to me:
"The nonviolent solution currently being circulated is
to say to the Taliban: Give us Osama bin Laden or we will take all of
"your" women and send them to college."
The Internet provides opportunities galore to express
our frustration and disgust through games, cartoons, websites, jokes,
discussion boards, chat rooms and e-mail targeting bin Laden, the
Taliban and the like.
The challenge: What is stress relieving for some
is stress producing for others. While some find gallows humor to be a
positive means of dealing with their stress, others find these
expressions of humor to be salt rubbed into an already irritated wound.
What's appropriate? What's not? There is no clear-cut answer. Gallows
humor can be a positive means of coping with anxiety, but it helps if
certain guidelines are followed:
Establish a bond: Gallows humor is less offensive
when there is a bond between the initiator and receiver of the humor.
Often this is a type of 'inside humor' that is utilized within certain
the boundaries of a certain group of people. There is an almost unspoken
agreement: "I'll not be offended by your sick humor if you agree not to
be offended by mine."
Be aware of the environment: The trick is to keep
the humor within the confines of said group. Once the dark humor escapes
the confines of the group, it then may become hurtful. Anyone who hears,
sees or experiences the humor is part of the audience, whether you
intended them to be or not. Think twice before hitting the 'forward' key
on an e-mail or blurting out a joke you just heard. Will it be hurtful
if unintended audience members intercept?
Be sensitive to the timing: H. G. Wells once
said, "The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow." Generally it takes
time for people to see any humor derived from pain or discomfort. Some
people never will. Every person's situation is unique and determined by
their own set of circumstances and life experiences.
Despite its multiple benefits, humor is always risky
business. Try as you may to be politically correct, there will almost
always be someone waiting in the wings to be offended. The humor or
laughter provides an excuse for him to ventilate about an unspoken and
deeper issue. That being said, if you choose to use humor to cope with
difficult times and are mindful of the feelings of others then, more
than likely, most folks won't mind if you laugh. Indeed, they may
welcome the respite.