A few years ago, I moved to Paris, France, so I could learn how to speak the native language. I lived with a French host family in the suburbs of the city. They were wonderful people, but my French was terrible—especially during the first few months of my stay.
I could articulate and understand only simple concepts. That meant that there was a big language barrier between my host family and me. It was a barrier that couldn’t be broken even by something as complex and subtle as humor. Virginia Woolf once said, “Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.” That was certainly true in my case.
At first, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t think humor was essential. But as the months went on, I realized that my inability to laugh with my host family—our inability to share humor—hindered our friendship. That inability prevented us from forming the kind of camaraderie that you would want in a situation like that.
I’m happy to say that by the end of my year living there, my French had improved quite a lot, and so had my ability to share humor with my host family. We could finally laugh together. That meant that our friendship drastically improved.
Because of that experience, I began to think about humor differently than I had before. It made me value humor more highly and to see it not as a luxury, but a necessity. I saw that it is a requirement of a balanced life! Henry Ward Beecher talked about this requirement in one of his essays. He said: “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”
It is easy to see that humor is a vital part of connecting with people and an enriching aspect of the human experience. But what exactly is humor?
A Difficult Definition
Of course, humor is something that is amusing, witty, funny or comical. But there are some more specific definitions that have been posited over the years that attempt to define what exactly constitutes humor. These alternative definitions can help us better understand the intricacies of this abstract concept.
American writer James Thurber defined humor as “emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”
This is an excellent definition for many instances of humor.
My dad tells a story from time to time about a day when he and two of his brothers were 7 or 8 years old and were riding their bikes through a pasture. Suddenly, they noticed a herd of huge cows “stampeding” toward them. The cows thought the boys were there to give them food, so they were chasing after them with urgency. But the boys didn’t know that. They thought the cows were out for blood! So the three brothers started pedaling as fast as they could down the narrow paths and through the long grass of the pasture. The paths were only wide enough to let one bike through at a time. The boys were in full panic mode, crying tears of fear and thinking that their lives were genuinely in danger. Whichever of the boys was in the rear would cry out for the brothers in front to let him pass, so he wouldn’t be “trampled to death.”
It’s pretty much impossible to hear this story without laughing. The people hearing it laugh, and my dad, when he is telling it, laughs maybe most of all. But at the time it happened, it was not at all funny! It was terrifying. It was emotional chaos. But remembering that chaos now—reflecting back on it during a time of tranquility, as Thurber said—is funny!
If you’re telling a story such as that one to your friends, you might even end it with a statement like: “Well, it sure wasn’t funny at the time!” So it seems that Mr. Thurber was onto something with his definition of humor.
Another viable definition of humor comes from the American writer William James. He said: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
Several other valuable definitions of humor highlight its connection with truth. The French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) placed truth at the center of humor, saying, “The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” In his book The Comic Toolbox, the American writer John Vorhaus defines humor as “the combination of truth and pain.” The Jewish-Danish humorist Victor Borge said, “Humor is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations. There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth.”
However you define it, if you even care to attempt such a difficult thing, it’s clear that humor is important. But is it worth developing and refining our sense of humor?
A Part of the Whole Personality
Acclaimed educator Laurence Peter once said, “There are three rules for creating humor, but unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” With amusing delivery, this witticism says something that most of us have personally learned is true: Humor is a delicate thing, and creating and wielding it effectively is seldom easy to do.
But although it is difficult, learning to create and appreciate humor is a worthwhile pursuit.
If you look in the student catalog of Herbert W. Armstrong College, you’ll see something that may surprise you. Part of the stated purpose of the school’s education is to “present a balanced education, with emphasis on character development and right culture—it’s about helping develop the whole personality.” How does AC present students with that education? The catalog lays out seven specific objectives for the students. Number four on the list is: “to become more outgoing, considerate, well spoken and humorous.”
So this means that part of the way AC teaches students to develop “the whole personality” is by providing an environment in which wholesome humor can be better developed.
Really, it should come as no surprise that God’s college encourages its students to develop a good sense of humor because God is the author of humor. He created it, and He has the best sense of humor there is!
You can get a bit of a glimpse into God’s humor by taking a trip to the zoo and seeing some of the whimsical creatures He designed. Some of them are far stranger in their appearances and more surprising in their behavioral patterns than would have been necessary for mere survival. Think about penguins, bonobos and fainting goats. Even ordinary house cats bouncing around the living room are hilarious to watch.
We can get some more insight into God’s humor by looking into certain scriptural passages. In Ecclesiastes 3:4, King Solomon said there’s “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh ….” Proverbs 17:22 says: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine ….” Another says, “[H]e that is of a merry heart has a continual feast” (Proverbs 15:15).
Psalm 2:4 says that God Himself laughs!
Also, consider the example of God’s servant Elijah when he was talking to a group of pagan prophets in 1 Kings 18. These pagan prophets spent a long time trying to get their false god to manifest himself. They were shouting and jumping around, but to no avail.
Of course, Elijah knew that their god was imaginary. Their god was a social construct of their own devising. But instead of dryly telling these pagans that their god was false, Elijah did something funny. He said, “Shout louder! He’s a god, so maybe he’s busy. Maybe he’s relieving himself. Maybe he’s busy someplace. Maybe he’s taking a nap and somebody needs to wake him up” (I Kings 18:27, International Standard Version). Whenever I read this account, I can’t help but smile because of the scathing sarcasm that Elijah used. He was using humor and using it effectively.
In other Bible passages, you will find examples of comedic devices like hyperbole, irony and even some really amusing analogies. There’s a passage that compares a woman who is beautiful but indiscreet to a golden jewel in the snout of a pig (Proverbs 11:22). Then there’s another one that talks about a slothful man who is too lazy to lift his hand to his mouth (Proverbs 26:15). There’s also the idea of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24).
Those are just a few of many scriptural examples.
When you add it all together, it’s clear that working to improve our sense of humor is a worthwhile goal—not just for Armstrong College students, but for all of us.
Humor is one area of character development that can be difficult because in this world, humor is often off-color or hurtful, or dark and perverted. So, developing the right kind of humor can be quite a challenge. But it is a challenge worth undertaking.
Many of you readers may be going through this article in the evening and getting ready to go to sleep for the night. So I would like to conclude by quoting the unforgettable words of the Prophet Daniel: “Shadrach, Meshach and To-Bed-We-Go!”