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Gerry Turcotte: Don’t underestimate power of a laugh

  • November 26, 2020

COVID-19 has triggered many things, some of them predictable, many not. Who, for example, would have guessed that the first major response to the virus would be panic buying of toilet paper? A rush on cellphone cases and Lego were two other unexpected results of the pandemic. Apparently, our behaviour has become so unusual that it is negatively impacting artificial intelligence algorithms, with one AI consultant claiming that “automation is in a tailspin.”

We have similarly seen some strange behaviour from our communities, proving that we don’t always see clearly in times of stress. Police stations and 911 call centres in Canada and the U.S. have fielded complaints from people who have run out of hand sanitizer, who have had strangers deliberately cough on them, and one woman even asking if her husband could have permission to visit his mistress (OK, that was in France). This is not as bad as the 911 emergency where a caller asked how long his lifetime driving ban would last … but it’s close.

We have equally seen the gamut of sure-fire cures being touted by leading figures from around the world: from cow urine and yoga in India, to essential oils in Iran, to injecting bleach in the U.S. While these suggestions are anything but funny, intentional humour has also risen to help us cope.

This isn’t unusual of course. We have always used what is sometimes called “gallows humour” — or galgenhumor as it was originally called in Germany — to get through tough times. Psychologists have written extensively on the role such humour played as a coping mechanism for concentration camp victims, or for soldiers in battlefield situations or later coping with PTSD.

Some well-known examples of gallows humour include the story of St. Lawrence, burnt alive on a gridiron by the Prefect of Rome in 258 AD. His last words, it is said, were, “I’m well done. Turn me over!” leading some to believe that this is why he has been named the patron saint of cooks and comedians. (That, in itself, is an example of gallows humour.) Murderer James French suggested the following just before he was electrocuted: “How’s this for a headline? French Fries!”

COVID jokes have been no different. One of my favourites was the closed cinema that had, on its marquee, “Now Playing Everywhere: Home Alone.” I also loved the note from a parent taped on her front door: “Feeling guilty about your kids watching too much TV? Just mute it and put the subtitles on. BOOM. Now they’re reading.”

My son, driving home from a family dinner, sent me a photo of a church sign that read, “Do not COVID thy Neighbour.” And I still chuckle at a meme I received recently that said, “The Flat Earth Society are reporting that the six-foot social distancing measures are pushing some of their members over the edge.”

The human mind is both incredibly resilient and remarkably fragile, and times of stress challenge this equilibrium. So it is not surprising that we might turn to humour, as to prayer, to make sense of and even compartmentalize our fears. Both have cathartic qualities that allow us to breathe out when we feel compelled to hold our breath.

Humour and prayer can each trigger physiological responses that flood our system with endorphins when we need them, recharging body and mind.

Just as we pray for help when matters seem dire and inexplicable, so do we use humour to ridicule the ridiculous and render that terror just a little less ominous. This is why humour, like faith, is so feared by autocracies and despots. They are tools of such power that jokes were actually banned in Nazi Germany, just as faith is banned under many dictatorships.

COVID humour, therefore, similarly helps us to put this once-in-a-lifetime situation into a context of sorts — or at the very least helps to minimize some of the fear that the unfamiliar can produce.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn, in the book God is Young, that Pope Francis, for over 40 years, has ended each day by reciting St. Thomas More’s “Prayer for Good Humour.” The poem reads, in part, “Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.” It asks for “a healthy body, and the necessary humour to maintain it.” And it ends, beautifully I think, with the lines: “Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.”

COVID has indeed changed the world, in ways we may never fully understand or never experience again. But through it all humour — and prayer — will help us to keep our minds, bodies and souls intact.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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