When Jokes Aren’t Funny

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Huge roasting pans for turkey, pumpkin pie paraphernalia, and enormous pots for potatoes all clank their way out of exile from the furthest reaches of the pantry’s back corner.

It’s the time of year to unearth Grama’s stuffing recipe and put together 20 or so plates and napkins with harvest-y colors.

Trepidation also gets unpacked along with the cornucopia decorations.  Family get-togethers that come around only once or twice a year bring worries of whether Uncle Joe will make another upsetting comment about Aunt Sally’s weight, will adult siblings resume the roles they had years before when they were small, and what will we make for the vegans?  We want the interaction of our family and friends to create new loving memories, rather than an experience that re-opens old wounds and rubs some fancy sea salt in them.

Humor was the super glue that helped create strong bonds at our family table.  My dad was a shameless punster who taught knock-knock jokes to us before we could walk.  We re-enacted scenes from Laurel and Hardy so much we called each other “Stan” and “Ollie.”  As my own children grew, the magic of humor charmed the relationships they formed with us and with each other – movie quotes injected at the right moment brought rounds of laughter, as did tales of family lore told over and over, each new version getting more laughs than the last.

Sigmund Freud said famously that there is no such thing as a joke. By this he meant that there is a grain of truth in everything we jokingly say to one another.  I filed this edict, put forth by our profession’s father, under a rug, where I sweep things I don’t want to think about too much. It keeps crunching whenever I walk on it, though, making especially loud noises when a member of a family I am counseling says, “Hey! I’m just joking!” in response to a loved one’s look of hurt at being the butt of a … joke.

When I lift the rug and take a look at the whole messy issue, it’s obvious that not all jokes are funny-ha-ha.

The word “sarcasm” comes the Greek, meaning, “to tear flesh.”  That’s what seems to happen right before my eyes when someone in a family uses that wicked form of humorous expression.  Its message is always contempt or mockery, all pretty and dressed up as a funny joke.

It’s hard for people to curb their use of sarcastic joking as their preferred way of conveying messages, because it’s a structure that’s been in use for so long that it’s gotten pretty solid and crusted over.  It is a hard transition to go from saying something not-really-funny, like “Oh, just relax you guys, I’ll wash up, AGAIN,”  to,  “Hey, could I get some help with these (millions of Thanksgiving) dishes?”  What’s remarkable is how easy it is once you start meaning what you say – or to quote a friend: “Say what you mean, mean what you say – but don’t say it mean.”

Being direct, especially with family members, is a tightrope walk. We want to connect in the strongest possible way that will instill in them the sense of how much we love them and enjoy seeing them.  But when hurts from the past get reactivated, un-analyzed, that sarcastic jokiness can take over.

A few parents didn’t get the memo that we don’t tease kids – we are stronger than they are and belittling jokes that they don’t “get” or that cause an eruption of laughter (about them) cause real and permanent wounds.  If you grew up in a family that used this as a style of giving messages to one another, you began to think everyone did it.  Until you used it as a grownup, and someone got hurt and started crying or found a different friend or spouse.

Lots of families use humor as a way of connecting.  A patient, when he was first learning to read, mispronounced the word “schedule” as “shield,” and to this day, his family all say we’ll check our “shields” before making definite plans.  This gets laughs from him and evokes sweet memories of his days as a young boy- – it does not shame or embarrass him.

Humor is never a problem when it’s not directed at someone’s weak spot.  Don’t use sarcasm, build up the ones you love, and tell lots of jokes this coming holiday.

Enjoy laughing with family members – it’s the best sauce.

Except for cranberry.

 

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