Now, this may come as a shock to some of my long time readers, but sometimes I make jokes that people thing are inappropriate. Like maybe I throw out an animal sex joke in the middle of a discussion of scripture. Which I don’t think anyone should be offended at; animal sex jokes and scripture go waaaaaay back. But you know, there’s just no pleasing some people.
The thing is that this isn’t a problem that’s confined to my writing. I frequently laugh at things other people don’t think are funny. For example, I was once telling a couple of women the unbelievably hilarious story about my wedding. As I got to the part where my uncle got set on fire, I looked at one of the women and realized that she had started crying. Which both made me feel bad and made me laugh even harder.
Conversely, I’ve been known to laugh at things people say, thinking they were joking only to discover that they were perfectly serious. And, you may not realize this if you have better social skills than I do, but that’s uncomfortable. Yeah.
But mostly I’m just really funny. As you well know.
I bring this all up because I have come across a few discussions lately regarding when it’s OK or not OK to mock, joke or laugh about something that in reality is quite painful. If we’re being too sensitive or if we’re minimizing something that needs to be taken seriously. As someone who laughs at inappropriate things, I would like to share why I do it and why we need to be able to laugh at horrible things in appropriate ways.
So, it all goes back to Harry Potter. (OK, so it probably goes back to my childhood and some sort of brain trauma, but work with me here.) In the third Harry Potter book, we are introduced to “boggarts”. Boggarts are spirits which have no shape of their own, but take on the appearance of whatever the viewer is most afraid of. So for one person it looks like a giant spider barreling towards them. To another it will look like a feared authority figure berating them. To another it might look like a dead child on the ground.
The trick to getting rid of a boggart is simple, ingenious and challenging. First, you must re-imagine what you fear as something that will make you laugh. Once you have that picture in your head, you wave your wand and say, “riddikulus!” And the giant spider is suddenly on roller skates and crashing about, knocking its legs off as it goes. The feared authority figure is wearing your grandmother’s best underpants and her hat with a turkey vulture on top. You laugh and the boggart weakens and tries again. Keep laughing and it disappears altogether.
I laugh at things that other people don’t find funny because that’s how I have found the power to face those things that can or have hurt me. In doing so, I gain power over them. In encouraging others to laugh rather than stand around being appalled, I hope that I am helping others gain power as well. If I can get those who don’t share that fear to laugh at it with me, it’s re-assuring to me that what is unpleasant, frightening, disappointing or even hurtful, doesn’t deserve that much power in my life.
Of course, it’s best not to take on a boggart alone. Some things can’t be re-imagined into something amusing. Sometimes you can laugh at it once, but not twice or three times. Not in a row, anyways. And being stuck, face-to-face with your own worst fear, all alone, is a horrible experience. Under the right circumstances, it can destroy a person. So we team up on our boggarts. We help each other see the absurdity of it all. We take turns laughing at ourselves and each other. And in the end, the boggart – the projection of what we are afraid of – loses it’s power and disappears. There may still be giant spiders in the magical forest, but the fear your mind creates at the thought of them is more manageable now.
Yes, people who use ridicule to hurt and demean others are wrong. Some people use humor hide from the truth of their own vulnerability to suffering (ie mocking the poor). And yes, it can be alarming to hear someone laughing about things you consider off limits or beyond the pale. And yes, sometimes it really does call for crying instead of laughing. But sometimes, laughing at things that not everyone things are funny is a sign of a strong, healthy person. It might be how we’ve faced our fears and taken our power back from what could potentially destroy us. And also some of us are just really weird.