Thursday, December 06, 2007

Humility Step Ten: Restraint of Laughter

"The tenth step of humility is that he is not given to ready laughter, for it is written: Only a fool raises his voice in laughter. [RB 7: 59]"

In Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character, a child raised by aliens who has been returned to earth, makes the observation that human beings laugh because they are actually very sad and need to distract themselves from this fact. He is able to see this because while he is human, he did not grow up with human beings around him and never learned to laugh.

When I read this as an adolescent, I was somewhat offended by the idea. I like a good laugh as much as the next person. As I have aged, I have come to see something of Heinlein's point, though it is a bit overstated. Infants laugh or at least giggle out of sheer delight at an age where they probably can't remember whatever existential dread they experienced five minutes ago. Also, St. Benedict does not condemn all laughter. The humble monk can simply be identified by a lack of readiness to laugh. It is important to emphasize that we will not become humble by moping about all day and frowning like a beadle breaking up a card game (that is supposed to be funny).

St. Basil amusingly permits his monks to appreciate funny comments by a slight smile. He notes that Jesus is never said to have laughed, and that in the Old Testament, the only time God laughs is at His enemies.

How does it follow that a monk who is reluctant to laugh is therefore humble? If we reverse the syllogism and say that a monk who simply bursts out laughing at slight provocations is not so humble, we might begin by observing that laughter has a certain effect on others. In fact, any sound we make has an effect on others, and one of the functions of silence is to learn to appreciate things as they are and not to feel compelled to control them by immediately making comments or overwhelming them by eruptions of passion from inside ourselves. When we recognize the jitteriness that often produces laughter, we can begin to ask ourselves some tough questions. Do I laugh because I really think things are funny, or am I merely uncomfortable and want to relive tension by guffawing? I am genuinely paying attention to things, or merely reacting out of my own nervousness? If I am nervous, why? Am I worried about what others are thinking of me? If so, this obviously is not about humility but a type of vainglory.

Again, I don't believe that monks are meant to be humorless, and there are myriad examples of monastic goofiness. St. Bernard's meticulous treatise on beards comes to mind, as well as the Master's burlesque on the gyrovagues. The Desert Fathers surely could mingle dead seriousness with a light-hearted sense of the absurdity of human affairs. In fact, I am convinced that the Bible features all sorts of humor, much of which is lost in a concern to translate it with the solemn cadences of Shakespeare (usually without his genius). But the humor found in, say, the Book of Daniel (such as the sing-song repetition of the names 'Shadrach! Meshach! Abednago!') is not the sort to shock us into rolling on the ground in laughter, such as might be the aim of a Lenny Bruce routine. Rather, humor does seem to be related to sadness, perhaps not only as a distraction, but as a more proper response to the limits, contradictions and foibles of human experience.

Laughter, however, can be taken to various extremes. We should not end this step without noting that laughter is often at the expense not of our own weakness or foibles, but someone else's. When we see a group of adolescent males outside of a school laughing knowingly, most of us would assume that the humor is off-color. Because laughter can wound, senstive personalities will be cautious to understand what is being said before stamping it with the seal of approving laughter. A monk who has seen many struggling souls and who has lived through many hard times in the communal life will, if he does not become cynical, become peaceful and naturally slow to react with passion to anything, except Jesus Christ. Such a peace indicates a quiet acceptance of oneself and of others and an unwillingness to control others by either putting them down or bullying them with loud noise.

This is one of the most problematic verses in all of the Rule. Often, the most difficult verses are the ones that reveal the most about our own cultural blind spots. What does it say about us that we invest millions of dollars in getting laughs from comedians and movies and cannot find Iraq on a map?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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