During my research for writing my book How To Laugh Your Way Through Life. A Psychoanalyst’s Advice (Karnac, 2013), I became sensitized to how people use tragic-comic humor—seeing the comic in the tragic and the tragic in the comic—in the service of life-affirmation amidst their personal ordeals. Recently, I had three instances in my clincial work in which my patients use of tragicomic humor reflected their mature capacity to recognize internal conflict with a degree of self-acceptance even if it involved some narcissistic bruising.
The first example came from the words of an Orthodox Rabbi I was seeing in psychotherapy as he was going through a horrible divorce: It was at the end of the session and while I was closing my waiting room down and he was leaving he said to me, “I heard you have written some books on a Jewish philosopher, he stammered a few times and finally got the pronounciation of Emmanuel Levinas right. I said, yes, he was correct, I had written two books on Levinas and noted that he would find his work very interesting since he was a great philosopher of ethics. My patient replied, “I don’t think so, I am an Orthodox Rabbi, what do I know about ethics!”
In the second example, a psychotherapy patient, a Conservative Rabbi trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who was not sure he believed in God enough to work as a congregatonal rabbi, told me that he had given a sermon on Saturday morning and made a “Freudian slip” that was very telling. During his sermon he was advocating that his congregation support an educational initiative that was to take place at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but instead of saying the correct name, he called the institution the Jewish Theological Cemetery! If ever there was an example of unintentionally poking fun at yourself this was it.
Finally I saw an Imam in parent counselling whose son was grappling with his Muslim and American identities. The son had departed from a traditional lifestyle and the Imam told me that he his family and community were feeling scorned by non-Muslims because of the deplorable actions of a few extremists. He felt the unfairness of these stereotypes had negatively impacted on his son’s adjustment which upset him a lot. He then read me a joke that he felt conveyed how he views his current situation.
“A man is taking a walk in Central Park in New York. Suddenly he sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull dog. He runs over and starts fighting with the dog. He succeeds in killing the dog and saving the girl’s life. A policeman who was watching the scene walks over and says: “You are a hero, tomorrow you can read it in all the newspapers: “Brave New Yorker saves the life of little girl” The man says: “But I am not a New Yorker!” “Oh, then it will say in newspapers in the morning: ‘Brave American saves life of little girl'” – the policeman answers. “But I am not an American!” – says the man. “Oh, what are you then? ” The man says: – “I am a Saudi!” The next day the newspapers says: “Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog.”
There is a lot that can be said about these three tragicomic examples, but what most struck me is how humor was being used to laugh at oneself (examples 1 and 2), and how important it is to have some ironic distance in one’s everyday life especially when one feels put upon (example 3). All three clergy seemed to have cultivated forms of attunement to the tragicomic in everyday life, a way of being that helped them to better manage their problems in living. Such tragicomic attunement is “compassionate humor,” or “humor from the heart,” for it tends to be hopeful, helpful and healing and brings people together.
Paul Marcus, PhD, is a supervising and training analyst at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. He is the author of Creating Heaven on Earth: The Psychology of Experiencing Immortality in Everyday Life; In Search of the Spiritual: Gabriel Marcel, Psychoanalysis and the Sacred; In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and the Art of Living; and How to Laugh Your Way Through Life: A Psychoanalyst’s Advice, among other books. Dr Marcus is married with two children and lives in Great Neck, New York.