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.