laugh

Humour Me

When I started running a diversity inquiry group with my friend Philip 8 years ago it never occurred to me that having serious conversations could be so entertaining, or that laughing didn’t necessarily mean losing the threads of meaning. A classic example was a recent meeting when we’d decided to talk about voluntary euthanasia given its topical relevance in the media and the fact that Philip was directly involved. The two of us spent time planning the facilitation, by planning I mean considering the alternative ways to approach the delicate edges of ethical and moral dilemmas without plunging into the pendulum of ‘for and against’ like some Newton’s cradle with the energy passing directly through and simply knocking backwards and forwards.

So lunch time came and I’d scrambled to get the list of words together – not bothering to check my spelling and being more concerned that having this conversation on a mufti day where the theme was pyjamas could seem a little trivialising. Although a panda onesie could almost pass for a suit. When students arrived and started looking at the words there the usual questions began. Starting with the Hippocratic oath. But for some reason I had typed ‘hypo’cratic. Goodness knows where my head had been, but to their credit they wondered about the meaning given hypo as a prefix meant something under. This signalled my awareness to the error so quick correction to hippo and more wondering about hippopotamus until we finally got to Hippocrates the Greek ‘father’ of medicine. The group scooted into a robust discussion about ‘preserving life’ and ‘doing no harm’ and quickly gathered some strands to anchor ideas. As we delicately stepped through the web of sticky questions the weight of some ideas required lighter approaches and at each point someone seemed to pick a moment to bring humour in.

But nothing could prepare us for what happened next. A new person joined 10 minutes in, she had been invited by a friend. The intensity had built and there was a moment of pausing to introduce people before launching back into it. A perplexed look fell over her face as we continued until she piped up ‘I thought you were talking about ‘youth in Asia’” and there it was – the irresistible and contagious explosion of tension which spiralled into a temporary mingling of strands into some bizarre hybrid that allowed us to hold both contradictions. Voluntary youth in Asia and coercion mixed briefly with choice and control and then dissipated. Picking up some dropped lines and sticking them back, the shape of ideas changed as the synergy and balance returned. As we turned toward emotional pain there was another language twist where sanatorium and sanitarium were interchangeable and a momentary picture was painted of mental illness and being treated with cornflakes and weetbix. Ironically the terms can be used interchangeably depending on where you are in the world but in NZ Sanitarium produces the breakfast of champions.

While we all regained our composure and recognised the heavier strands that could scaffold some future thinking it seemed what mattered is it didn’t matter what the law was, or who’s beliefs were right or what evidence was presented. It seemed in the moment that pleasure and pain can only exist because of the presence of the other. That without some medium from which tension can arise there can be no release. In fact if we look at the original meaning of humour it derives from Greek medicine, where the balance of bodily fluids or humours was essential for good health.

Laugher is not trivial or trivialising, in fact it recognises the pain, and dis-ease and makes it bearable for a moment just enough to give space to think the unthinkable and stretch our capacity to hang over the edge and search the face of the void rather than shrinking away in fear.

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It’s life gym…

“but not as we know it” if you couldn’t help saying it then you will likely “live long and prosper”. I can’t imagine living inside a giant tin-can in space, although I spent an hour inside a smaller tin-can this week watching kids doing gymnastics. Parking my bike outside after a bit of a squally ride – wind rain cold, a perfect Auckland day I wandered upstairs as parents were barred from the floor to a curious picture of contrasts. Downstairs, a hive of bodies moving and exploring apparatus. Waiting their turn, sharing space, encouraging and supporting each other. All ages mingling and united in their enthusiasm and determination to master skills. Upstairs other children sitting around using apps, isolated from each other, age segregating them as younger children tried to explore the space but were met with annoyed looks and dismissive gestures. A clear sense of territory and personal space emerged. I picked my way through gingerly trying not to break the concentration of those staring into screens to look into the den of activity and caught myself thinking ‘I want to be down there’. Under one roof a simple line had been drawn around play and while the wind howled and the heavens opened, inside all were happy doing their thing.

Riding home in the driving rain passed by tin-cans on wheels I felt the pounding of my heart, the drenching of skin all my senses working together to adapt to the elements. Laughing at the ridiculousness and enjoying the sensation of complete and utter saturation that those in tin-cans will never know. It was life gym and I am glad to know it.

Funny bone of contention

I love a good laugh but few women are taken seriously when it comes to comedy and I’m ‘bovvered’ by it. If anything shows up how stuck we are with gendered assumptions, then the near extinction of female representation on the comedy front should be noted. There are a few older birds left but looking through the line-up for the NZ Comedy festival, they were as rare as hens teeth, it was a sea of…male chickens.

They are an endangered species female comedians, and short of a captive breeding programme I think we should be asking what is happening to the native habitat and how to protect it. What kinds of pest eradication need to take place.

Funnily enough NZ media is in a bit of a conundrum about taking women seriously. OK sure, but maybe the place to start is actually at the other end of the spectrum by challenging the prevailing idea that guys are ‘jokers’ and women are well – just not that funny. Getting more women visibly performing comedy could be a way to lighten the way.

Humour is transformative especially the kind that provokes thinking. For me it is the reflective irony that captures my imagination and pushes back the veil of norms and dislodges or jolts me from the mundane revealing a new perspective and helping to open space for questioning things.

All this happens in a few seconds underneath raucous laughter, usually accompanied by snorts and possibly slight loss of bladder control. Laughter is the best medicine unless you are incontinent.

Tipping The Balance

I am surrounded by amazing creative educators and interesting people talking about ‘modern learning environments’ and what this looks like. I suppose that is where I want to push and provoke some conversations, because we seem to be stuck with ‘look like’ a lot. The focus and emphasis keeps being drawn into changing the shapes of furniture, open learning and staff spaces and increasing use of technology. We rarely get to ‘sound like’ and ‘feel like’ possibly ‘smell like’ which happen to be important relational aspects of learning. One special interest area for me is the realm of discipline. So as usual I have taken to the metaphorical to share some observations, and yes bikes are involved.

If anyone has learned to ride a bike, or swim you might recall the sensations and emotions that come with vulnerability. There is a delicate relationship between being control and feeling the pang of fear. It’s excitement wrapped in caution. As adults we occasionally are asked to learn new things that push us beyond our comfort zone but it is usually by choice and rarely does it mean learning something that puts our professional identities on the line.

But watching the process of restorative practices enter schools has all hallmarks of skinned knees, struggling for breath and feeling ‘out of our depth’ as a profession. Teaching and schools have been moving along just nicely with traditional practices of discipline and punishment for over a century. It’s a machine that everyone recognises and we generally get the mechanics of how it all works.

Learning to Ride a bike is familiar to many people – bit wobbly at the start, usually held by someone to get going, but the freedom gained was well worth it. Once you’ve ridden one you can pretty much jump on any sort of bike, same principles, laws of physics, maybe the shift in gears could be unfamiliar and mountain and road bikes do operate differently. It can feel awkward but you can adjust pretty quickly. I liken this to schools and discipline policies in general, you can move between institutions which claim a ‘unique’ culture but once you are ‘on and pedaling – it rolls pretty much the same. If rules are broken punishment is dished out – we’ve been riding this punitive machine for a while.

Then along comes the restorative contraption. It is more like a unicycle. We don’t generally see unicycles around, they are for clowns and performers, no serious-rational-real person would consider them just as adequate as bikes. They might even say ‘we need unicycles like a fish needs a bike’. Nevertheless teachers are asked to give up their comfortable seat of power, drive chain of consequences and handle bars of truth for what? A one wheeled contraption with no training wheels? And here is the real spanner in the spokes, no amount of experience on a bike will help ride this thing. It is a starting again, a stripping back to a raw relationship with gravity and balance, shame and vulnerability matched with accountability. No amount of watching, reading, analysing will help you ride one. Just getting on requires patience and perseverance, falling off is required, it is the only way to make progress – yet it feels unnatural and letting go of the stability of the wall requires courage and an understanding that without losing balance you cannot move forward. Then finally you let go and try one pedal and it feels like a mile. You start to get a feel for how the unicycle moves with you and go with it, zig zagging all over. Every subtle turn and shift changes the direction, you can even pedal backwards. So it is about giving in to uncertainty with adrenaline surging and mixing this with cautious anticipation for the next attempt.

To those on the outside, it appears unsafe, reckless, even dangerous. They might wonder where is the control? The direction? How do they steer? It looks awkward and clunky and many will turn away and say ‘I’ll stick to the bike thanks – at least I know how that works.’ A small group will persevere and take the risk of leaving the safety and comfort of the wall of familiarity. A few pedal strokes is exhilarating enough to feel like you are getting it. But the next time in might be face in the floor time, it doesn’t mean going backwards, learning is non-linear and with every painful fall there is a sense of progress, the body senses more and more how to move with this strange new (e)motion. Encouragement, support, laughter and shared experience allow those who continue to maintain their momentum. The wobbles will lesson and the flow will come, falling gets easier and less painful, in fact, direction comes through careful adjustments, a growing awareness of what works for you.

There is no skipping a stage, there is no way to short cut…just get back on… hundreds and hundreds of times. Eventually getting going will be less of a struggle and momentum will come naturally. The effortlessness is illusory, it masks the commitment and dedication, change in physiology with a new and unique proprioceptive relationship to rolling friction. But those who have tried to ride will recognise and appreciate the visual confirmation that ‘it can be done’.

Because the usual mechanics of power and privilege that comes with Authoritarian discipline have been stripped back, the time to get going restoratively does mean many will need gentle introductions whilst others will be ready to throw themselves into it. Both are fine, but recognising the kinds of support people need is something schools need to pay particular attention to when introducing restorative processes. Developing effective restorative practices takes time to develop and they only get easier by doing them. If there ever was a place for repetition in learning it would be here and particularly the skill of asking questions. However it is helpful to find creative ways to ask the same thing otherwise you run the risk of wearing your ‘mental tire’ out on starting in the same place all the time. You can get around this by rotating the tire every few weeks on a unicycle, or to get some alternative starting points to conversations.

One of the things I remember from learning to unicycle was how tired I felt, how exposed and vulnerable I felt. Bruised in places I never thought I could be (or should be) including my ego, frustrated, exasperated at times but also quietly satisfied with each tentative meter gained. Even scrapes and bumps are celebrated and cherished.
I am by no means an expert on a unicycle but having watched and taught over one hundred people to ride one I understand it is a process that has as many demands mentally and emotionally as it does physically. Fear is one of the main reasons people ‘get off’ and return to what is safe. This will always be the case. The irony is – the very ‘gravity’ of the situation is what enables these kinds of conversations to take place.

Finally, surround yourself with others wanting to share the same experience, laugh a lot, console, apply ice packs, laugh more. Expect to fall off then just get back on…again and again and again…

Laughter is the best medicine, unless its not

I have a Friday night ritual that involves sitting down and watching TV with the sole/soul purpose of laughing. It’s my preferred choice of intoxication. We all laugh, in fact laughing is our first form of communication, we laugh before we can speak. It is interesting when you find yourself doubled over in hysterics and the person beside you staring incredulously with a look on their face that reads “what is she on?”

Well actually I have been prescribed an ancient Greek remedy! The word humour/humor has its roots in Latin and is related to the ‘balance of fluids’ that control human health and emotion. I have to agree, if I have a good laugh I feel amazing, but too much of a good thing and I lose bodily functions I would rather not lose control of – breathing and bladder control. Seriously, there are genuine physiological benefits such as increased endorphins (natural happy buzz chemicals) and a reduction in stress hormones.

Not everyone has the same taste in what tickles their funny bone. Going back and watching old TV and movies reveals how socially and culturally constructed humour is. I often chuckle at personal adds where people declare they have a Good Sense Of Humour (GSOH) – according to who? But I suppose it is a valued quality – so why? Why do we care if people can laugh?

I think it’s a bit of a shortcut to knowing someone on an intimate level. For me this is the ultimate form of intimacy. The psychological, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of self are revealed through laughter – you are essentially fully naked. It is honest and cuts through layers or labels of identity that don’t really matter in terms of ‘who we are’. I see it as an energetic experience that is felt at a very deep level, we become closer to the other person and less guarded. They ‘get it’ – they get you.

But it’s not quite that simple unfortunately. You see,
humour requires a degree of harm ‘wrongness’ or offense. Or exposing either of these. Sad but true and hilarious. In Stranger In A Strange Land (Robert A Heinlein), the main character Valentine Michael Smith, is a human raised on Mars. He has NO sense of humour when he arrives on Earth and does not understand laughter or why Earth raised humans laugh. When he finally works it out he announces:

“I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”
“I had thought — I had been told — that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok* it is a bravery . . . and a sharing… against pain and sorrow and defeat.”
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok

Smith is an intense character but as fictional as he is, the observation is spot on and rather revealing about the level of consciousness we are at as a species. Smith although biologically human, had never laughed because; if a ‘Martian’ ever invoked any of these in another they would ‘discorporate’ themselves…hard to explain just read the book (it’s not a movie – yet – so you can’t cheat!).

I’m also not so sure about particular cultures of humour within professions that develop as a way of dealing with difficult and distressing events and trauma. Terms such as ‘surgeons humour,’ are a bit of a contradiction and whilst could be seen as healthy ‘off-loading’ has the potential to dismiss and minimise peoples experiences who might be involved.
My line of work is inextricably linked with this sort of phenomenon. So I understand people need to find a way to be less affected by horribleness but sometimes wonder about the effect of this in terms of anethetising ourselves too far and forgetting we are dealing with people. When it is that sad, hard and difficult – just let it be that! Laughing it ALL off denies a healthy balance of sensitivity and respect with a need for self-care.

Laughing at ourselves we could do more of. I know when I’m doing this my ego gets a bit of a spring clean. It goes back to intimacy and to be in touch with our own frailties, idiosyncrasies and a willingness to explore these without a sense of shame.

So if I was to put a personal add in with ‘GSOH’ I might qualify that by indicating – I think I am very ‘punny’, like candle lit dinners in shrubbery’s and ‘always look on the bright side of life’.
If that makes sense then you ‘grok’ me.

Yes laughter probably is the best medicine, and could be prescribed more – it might just depend on what the ‘dis-ease’ is and the dose.