I realized that I have been blogging for the good people at Rational Faiths for over a year now. It has been a wonderful exercise for me. I have been really grateful to the Barker brothers and other bloggers for their continual support of my writing, and for the platform to share humor with others. I have wanted, for a while, to do a more introspective piece about the role that humor plays in the Mormon community, and so I decided to write this piece as a way to work through what I view as a struggle among Saints on in the age of polarization.
I am told that I was first asked to write because of a Facebook group I had created, called ‘Coming to Terms with the Abundance of Mullets in Church Art’, in which I posted a few pictures and included a brief blurb contemplating the constant presence of the mullet in LDS church art, especially among the godly. Michael Barker, when I began writing, told me that this blog needed humor. I’ll admit- I approached all of this with some trepidation. I found the Blogosphere to be a really hostile place. I felt unable to contribute for a few reasons: 1.) I felt completely unequipped in the great debates among Mormons in the Bloggernacle. 2.) I was insecure with my own doubts and worries, and finally, 3.) I was entering into a very stressful phase in my life involving full time work, a Masters degree, my second child, and a number of other things. But I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to do a piece, titled ‘Mormons and Mullets’, in which I further pontificated the role that mullets play within the church. The rest is history.
As I recently read about John Dehlin and Kate Kelly’s pending disciplinary courts, I felt at the moment, that my role as a Mormon humorist was over. As I watched people I love and respect debate the issues presented, I lamented the divisions that these discussions were causing among friends and family members. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be a middle ground. I mean, making other Mormons laugh was already hard enough. In my experience, I have found that there are two major camps in the Bloggernacle: those who cannot laugh because of the pain and anger they feel towards the church, and those who cannot laugh because they aren’t sure what they are allowed to laugh at. I hope to address both camps in this rather candid blog post.
For those who cannot laugh because of pain/anger/other emotions:
As a child, I had a lot of anxiety: I was worried that I was behind the other kids. I was worried about problems at home. I was worried about the way kids treated me at school. This was probably pretty normal. But as I grew, things got a little existential. I remember praying as a child to know if the Book of Mormon was true, and then noticing the complete absence of feeling following my prayer. Why did God answer the prayers of other children, but not mine? What could I, at 7 years old, be doing wrong? I tried a number of things to ‘get his attention’. I remember getting a flashlight and writing messages in the sky, hoping that my feeble efforts would wake up a God that could be sleeping or catch the attention of a Heavenly Father who is surely distracted by his other (at the time) 6 billion children.
Ben Folds wrote, in his song regrets, the following lyrics- “I thought about sitting on the floor in second grade/I couldn’t keep the pace/ I thought I was the only one/ Moving in slow motion/While the other kids knew something I did not/ But if I acted like a clown/ I thought it’d get me through…” Anyway, as was the case with Mr. Folds, I became somewhat of a class clown. I would wear silly clothes like bathrobes and goofy hats to school. Humor began to be the way by which I dealt with my anxieties. Instead of crying in the bathroom stall over my failed test, I would instead laugh and hold it up for everyone to see my proudly earned F.
However, like Ben Folds later admits in the song, it got him through, but “that don’t work no more.” I found that my religious anxieties began to become quite uncomfortable. I felt confused, distant from any sort of God, and above all, guilty. I thought that the absence of what I felt was God’s presence surely meant that I was doing something seriously wrong. I held onto this anxiety for years. It began to manifest as doubt mixed with hormones, and low-grade worry turned into existential teenage crisis. It didn’t help that I started reading a bunch of depressed authors and listening to depressed musicians. I would read about the horrors of war, the depths of human suffering. I would look at my shirt, and instead of seeing a product, I would see some dirty kid in Somalia with a sewing machine and a brooding, fat, mustachioed guy hovering over him, glaring angrily. In my first steps into my ‘dark night of the soul’ It became harder and harder for me to cope.
I came from a family that struggled in a lot of ways. But, for us, humor was always our healing balm. It was the connective thread that held us together. Humor bonded us together in a way that nothing else could have. Humor was the way we all dealt with everything. I can’t really say that it mitigated any doubt or calmed the tempests of youth, but I firmly believe that it made it much more bearable. I can think about jokes we made at difficult times and still chuckle to myself. Humor became the trustiest tool in my toolkit.
Ghandi was once asked by a close associate what he thought about humor. Mahatma Ghandi replied with a quote that is difficult to shake: “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” I love the honesty in this quote, although it is always uncomfortable to me to hear suicide discussed with such candor. Sometimes, in our dark moments, we find ourselves unable to laugh. Yet, laughter is a trademark of humanity. I read something the other day that described humor among those captive in concentration camps. As I read these condemned individuals tell fatalistic jokes to each other, I was shocked. Of course, they were not my jokes to tell. But I read about how they used humor among themselves. In a piece specifically on humor during the Holocaust, an interviewer asked a survivor about the role humor played in his suffering. He responded: “What I thought was the reason I survived… they probably expected me to answer good fortune or other things. I said that I thought it was laughter and humor, not to take things the way we were living but to dress them up as something different.That was what helped me. I wasn’t thinking about miracles and wasn’t thinking anything, I only thought how not to take things seriously, as if I thought that this was the proportion that I was giving, and I guess it (this attitude) helped me. Because it was absurd all that time, it was inconceivable, that they could do those things to people.”
Another said the following: Look, without humor, we would all have committed suicide. We made fun of everything. What I’m actually saying is that that helped us remain human, even under hard conditions.
It is very possible that you, the reader, are fumbling along with me in this road called life. You may even be in the middle of your own ‘dark night of the soul’. I sometimes feel like I’ve been in a dark night for years, walking down an endless highway, and the flashes that I think are the sun are actually just car headlights passing by. Things may seem pointless. You may have doubts that rack your soul. You may have deep disagreements with church leaders on core issues. You may have hostile feelings toward those who have wronged you. One of the main reasons why I write is to help you take a step back and see the absolute absurdity of things. I guess, as somewhat of an observer, this happens to me really often. I knew I wouldn’t be able to solve everyone’s doubts. I knew I wouldn’t be able to change anyone’s mind about issues of contention or disagreement. I feel like, if I have gained anything on my journey, it is the realization that recognizing the absurdity of life is one of our first steps towards understanding it. So, I hope that at some point, during my year of writing, that I have helped calm the waters for someone, even slightly. This is one of the main reasons why I do the things that I do.
To those who are unable to laugh at things
I have been accused of bordering on sacrilegious at times. I would like to defend myself against these accusations. This is nothing new-this has happened to me all throughout my life. I fully recognize that there are times in which laughter is completely inappropriate. But, as I have pointed out, humor has been a way that I have found God. I feel like the God I worship recognizes my sense of humor, and often times plays along. At a difficult point of my mission, I remember laughing to myself about the circumstances. I was in a trio with a very difficult mission companion. I wondered how much longer it would all last. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know what role I was supposed to play. I remember sitting in a lesson, listening to the other two speaking, and wondering what the point was. In what was one of the only times I heard an American song on the radio (and possibly a freak accident), I heard ‘Africa’ by Toto on a distant radio. While the other two are teaching away, I am sitting there dancing to myself. The lesson ended, the song ended, and I thanked God for what I viewed as a ‘tender mercy.’ If they gave me 5 minutes at General Conference, that is the story I would tell.
In 1974, Leonard Arrington wrote a piece called ‘The Looseness of Zion: Joseph Smith and the Lighter View’. He explained that many people who were religious felt guilt for any display of levity, among these Brigham Young, who was disciplined constantly. He lamented not being able to dance and sing like other children, and was wracked by guilt at the slightest thought of deviation from his Puritanical upbringing. Arrington explains that many who belonged to churches at the time “were so conditioned by their early repressive experience that they felt guilty if they enjoyed the ordinary things of life and expressed that guilt in a sanctimonious demeanor and grave countenance.” However, Joseph Smith and the saints, at times, displayed a rare form of joy. Joseph railed against those he viewed as overly sanctimonious. Arrington shares the following story:
Jedediah M. Grant, who knew the Prophet well, underscored this point when he declared that Joseph Smith preached against the “super-abundant stock of sanctimoniousness” that characterized contemporary religion. According to Elder Grant, a certain minister, out of curiosity, came to see the Prophet in Nauvoo and carried this sanctimonious spirit so far that the Prophet finally suggested to the minister that they engage in a little wrestling. The minister was so shocked that he just stood there rigid and dumbfounded, whereupon the Prophet playfully acted as though to put him on the floor and help him get up and then called attention to the so-called Christian “follies” of the time, the absurdity of the long, solemn, “asslike” tone of speaking and acting, and the dangers of excessive piety and fanaticism (Journal of Discourses, 3:66–67).
I want to say that I would LOVE for a display like this at General Conference. Yes, faith matters. Yes, it is intensely personal, and any sort of deviation from the most orthodox can be seen as an affront to deeply held beliefs. But I think that, while humor can on one side be a destructive force, I also think, as did Joseph Smith, that humor can expand the spirit. In what was one of my favorite conference addresses ever (Come What May, and Love it, 2008) Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin pleaded with the Saints to find humor in their journeys. He talks of how humor created bonds and helped him deal with hardships. As saints, we often find ourselves taking life TOO seriously. As Arrington further points out, we can sometimes find ourselves acting out the “principle or law of reversed effect.” Or, in other words, “our efforts to keep from doing a wrong thing are so tense and determined that they magnify our chances of doing that very thing.” However, if God can have a sense of humor, surely we can. There are things that you may view as life or death that aren’t quite as grave as you’d like to believe.
Francis Bacon said, of humor, “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” As another said, the struggles in our life, at the root, are lamentations that we are all, as a species, much more -human- than we wish to be. Sometimes we’re awesome, sometimes we’re lame, but most of the time, we are wrong. So laugh. Also, farts.
Thanks, Thomas. I’m one of the too serious type. I finally gave myself permission to laugh at life when I was about 28. Unfortunately, that means my sense of humor is about at Middle School age right now. Fortunately, children and my mother-in-law appreciate it.
I also see “no related posts” at the bottom. I have a new goal–within the year I will write something funny about why I’m a Mormon. We’ll see if I follow through or look back and laugh at my misguided imaginings. 🙂
Thank you. This was wonderful.
I had that experience on my mission–
suddenly, someone turned on a radio to the American station; after a year in a very foreign country that had, at that time, little American influence, there was a rock/pop song–
I was once leading the singing in my tiny branch about 45 or 48 years ago. My father and the branch president and my two brothers and the missionaries were all on the ‘stand’.
We had a pianist–
my mother and sister and an elderly woman in our branch were in the ‘congregation’–
As I was leading them, I realized there were more people behind me (all male) and that the three I was ‘leading’ (one of whom was not a singer, nor even attempted to be) were all women–
and I ‘lost’ it–
I laughed and laughed and laughed. I staggered a little and almost fell over–
the pianist was doubled over–
my mother and sister and the elderly lady just sat there. I have no idea what was happening behind me, but nobody moved.
When I was finished, I began leading again and finished the hymn.
The absurdities. I needed this right now; thank you.
Loved this little story. Those moments are the best.
Joseph Smith loved levity and humor. As you pointed out, some folks found this unbecoming what they thought a prophet should be. I have lots of favorite stories of him.
1. Some ministers came to debate the scriptures with him and after a solid debate that Joseph came out on top he escorted them outside, drew a line in the dirt and jumped from the mark. He then said “Well gentlemen you haven’t bested me at the scriptures see if you can best me at that.”
2. Someone came to visit him and found him playing with some children. He said “When I am with the boys I make all the fun that I can.”
3. Once at home they had little food, only some meal and oil and they made a Johnny Cake. Joseph offered the blessing and said “Lord we thank you for this Johnny Cake and ask you to send us something better.” Someone knocked at the door with a ham and a turkey. Joseph said “You see Emma my prayer worked!”
4. William Phelps generally offended about everyone with his editorials but Joseph said that he would make William the editor of his paper if only he was allowed to read it.
A sense of humor in this life it requisite and I find that if we as LDS cannot laugh at ourselves the foibles of our culture we have a serious problem. There is nothing “sacred” about church art mullets. Anyone who thinks Nephi had a mullet raise your hand? ***crickets***
Thomas, I love you like a nephew.
A few years ago, a young man who worked for me died in a tragic way. He left a wife and a gaggle of little kids. It was awful. President Monson spoke at his funeral. Up until the point he spoke, the meeting had been solemn and depressing. When he spoke, the audience, including the widow, chortled a long sigh of relief. His talk was non-stop humor. I was in awe at how he made everyone feel so comfortable–how he allowed us, for half an hour or so, to realize that life can be, as you say, absurd. It was beautiful.
On My Mission™, I received a new companion whom I didn’t know very well. The first night, we knelt down for companionship prayer and he gave a short, sweet prayer. And at the end he said, “and Father, please bless Elder Dehlin that he’ll be a little nicer to me. *pause Amen.” I was mostly inactive as a teenager and I was serious about making the most of my mission, one part for others, and two parts for me. I was admittedly one of those kinda uptight, “follow the rules to the letter” kinds of missionaries. So my brain hiccuped when he said that. And it was like all of the residual tension/guilt/judgement just sort of dissipated. I just busted out laughing.
And it was good.
God tells me private jokes all the time. One of my favorite bits of humor is in the Temple ceremony, when A&E are discovered naked. God says “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” (I always chuckle) “did you eat that fruit?” then A says “uh…remember that woman? It was her.” Then E says “have you met the serpent? It was him.” And then the devil says “what? You’re not the boss of me!”
I became an amputee 3 years ago, and while I had always embraced humor, I have developed a love for it now that is endless multiples of what it was. A lot of the time I am trying to put others, tensing when they identify my handicap, at ease. Just as often I am casting off the bubbles that God has put inside me just for that purpose. Hopefully, as things get more and more serious over the schisms in the Church, people will be blessed by God with an artesian well of humor that just spouts out quips and humorous essays as faithfully as the most reliable of geysers! But we do need to pray to God to put joy in our hearts to truly fulfill this dream.