Humor in Not-So-Funny Times


by Allen Klein


"If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it."

-- Bill Cosby

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 communism?"

The answer? "In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it's the other way around."

The tactic worked; with the mood relaxed, the talks continued.

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 drown.

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 flakes."

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 it!"

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.

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