A cartoon I once saw in the New Yorker magazine chose
to illustrate with humor the results of cutbacks.
Pictured were Mutt (without his longtime companion
Jeff), the three horsemen of the apocalypse, and Snow
White with the six dwarfs. It might be amusing to
laugh at cutbacks in cartoons, but can you laugh at
adversity in the real world?
I contend that not only can you laugh at adversity,
but it is essential to do so if you are to deal with
setbacks without defeat.
When you do find humor in trying times, one of the
first and most important changes you experience is
that you see your perplexing problems in a new way --
you suddenly have a new perspective on them. As a
result of this new vantage point, you may also see
new ways to deal with the problems.
Throughout history, great leaders have known the
power of humor. During one troubled period of his
presidency, Lincoln told his cabinet,
"Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the
fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I
did not laugh, I should die. You need this medicine
as much as I do."
Laughter can help relieve tension in even the
heaviest of matters. For example, during the Cuban
missile crisis, Soviet and American negotiators
became deadlocked. There they sat in silence, until
someone suggested that each person tell a humorous
story. One of the Russians told a riddle: "What
is the difference between capitalism and
The answer? "In capitalism, man exploits man. In
communism, it's the other way around."
The tactic worked; with the mood relaxed, the talks
There is another amusing tale that I sometimes tell
in my workshops which illustrates how a little humor
can help ease a troublesome situation. It comes from
the Jewish tradition. The story says that the world
will come to an end in three days. In three days,
everything will be covered by water and everyone will
After hearing this, the Pope goes on television and
says, "Don't worry, if you all turn to Christ,
you will be saved."
The head of the Zen community also goes on TV and
says, "Don't worry, if you put your faith in
Buddha, you will be saved."
Then the head rabbi of Israel appears on TV and says,
"Don't worry folks, we have three days to learn
how to swim under water."
Some people who have experienced natural disasters
can relate to the story above. During flooding the
Midwest, for example, a restaurant hung this sign up:
"Waitress wanted. Must be able to swim under
water." After the southern California
earthquake, one mother wanted to make sure her son
understood what had happened earlier in the day. She
asked him, "What did we have this morning?"
Her son replied, "Cheerios and corn
The northern California earthquake elicited some
humor, too. When the porch roof collapsed, one
youngster came running out of the house yelling,
"I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I didn't do
Humor can be one of our best survival tools. Victor
Frankl knew this when he was incarcerated in a German
concentration camp. Humor gave him hope for the
future and something to look forward to each day.
It can do the same for you. At work, when you are
forced to do more with less -- or in life, when
difficulties or disasters strike -- humor can give
you the upper hand. You may not be able to change a
situation, but with humor you can change your
attitude about it. As Frankl noted, "The last of
human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any
given set of circumstances."
Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color
your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and
your picture will always be bleak. Try adding some
bright colors to the picture by including humor, and
your picture begins to lighten up.
Today's business and health care climate may not be
pleasant. Cutbacks, pay cuts and layoffs do not make
anyone's job easy. But that does not mean that the
humor need stop.
Humor can help you cope with the unbearable so that
you can stay on the bright side of things until the
bright side actually comes along.