“The darkest part of the night is just before dawn”
Taking our selves too seriously can be an impediment to our own wellbeing, however taking an irreverent attitude towards events or people outside our selves can liberate us from feelings of shame, and powerlessness. With humour we open and reclaim a power that what was not available to us, offering us joyful experiences that are polar opposite to feeling emotionally repressed. Humour laced with a dose of irreverence, and outrageousness can connect us with spontaneity, imagination and joy.
My therapist would often use absurdity and humour suggesting a response to an experience that was so outrageous that we would both laugh until tears would be streaming down our faces. It felt liberating to break free from something that had me pinned down, that had me feeling constricted. He would suggest to me that 'dark times call for dark humour', laughter offered an experience that was far removed from the struggle that I had been sitting with. Something opened in me, I could imagine something new that felt life affirming, that shifted the heavy burden of shame and anxiety. It illuminated the off balance behaviour of another that I had being feeling responsible for.
It has prompted me to ask the question. What does humour offer us in coming to terms with something that feels dark, that keeps us sad, that prevents us from fully flourishing? What we struggle with is a reflection of an experience that left us from fulfilling a deep need. This could be to feel safe, loved, nourished or fulfilled. When this is denied we are left trying to make sense of the situation or experience and maybe we decide that we are not worthy of safety, love, nourishment or fulfilment. Rather than focus the humour on our own perceived shortcomings, by redirecting it towards that which we have been held captive by allows us to reclaim power where in the past we have felt shamed and powerless.
I looked to comedians to provide some understanding of what humour can offer us, and what the limitations of it might be. Comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks has often used comedy to poke fun at Nazi Germany and Hitler. As a Jew Mel saw comedy as a means to reclaim the power taken from Jewish people when he described playing Hitler in a film "It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To posses this power and turn it against him -– it is simply alluring".
Recently Hannah Gadsbys stand up special took her traumatic experience of growing up in an environment that was deeply shaming to her sexuality and body image that differed from a perceived norm. It brought to bear this experience, she explains the type of comedy she practiced in the past was like a abusive relationship. Where she used her experiences of shame as a means to garnish laughter from the audience. She would build tension using self-depreciating humour, thus reinforcing her shame. The turnaround for her came when she began to shame her perpetrators, this had the audience laughing at them and not Hannah. I suggest that using humour redirect this shame on those who perpetrated her traumatic experience, has allowed her to reclaim her power. The shameless become the shamed.
Humour doesn't diminish the experience of traumatic events, however it has the capacity to open us up, to break the shackles of shame, and powerlessness. It repositions shame from a burden that we carry to where it can be redirected back to where it came from. In the case of Mel Brooks this was Hitler and the Nazis who came close to exterminating a ethnic and religious group. With Hannah Gadsby it is the cultural norms around sexuality and body image that permeate our society. For us all humour and the ridiculous, offers experiences of liberation over shame and an opportunity redirect and shine a light on what was outrageous to our wellbeing. For the path of liberation and healing doesn’t always need to be dark, it can be illuminated by laughter to guide us through the darkness.
Richard Prince is a Sydney based Gestalt Psychotherapist in private practice. He works with clients that are interested in developing their inner wisdom, to create a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfilling relationships. He has trained in the United States and in Australia, completing a degree in Architecture, and holds Masters Degrees in Social Ecology and Gestalt Psychotherapy. He balances his therapy practice with life in the professional business world as a creative practitioner, as a father, a husband, and as a full time human being.