The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples


I have recently had a feeling that things are getting a bit grim — life just seems to be a bit of a downer for a lot of people. We may just be taking ourselves a bit too seriously, and it’s time to lighten up a little.

It is always embarrassing to admit that I like light bulb jokes.  Not the choose-your-fa­vorite-stupid-ethnic light bulb jokes, but the ones that have a little bite in them.  Ones like, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.”  Or how many social workers?  None, it’s the en­vironment that has to be changed.  Or Californians?  16.  One to change it and the other 15 to share the experience.  We’ve tried for years to come up with a good one for Unitarian Universalists, but until recently at least we haven’t been entirely successful.  I’ve heard several efforts, most of them pretty lame, such as, “Any odd number greater than one so that you get a majority vote on the best way to do it.”  Or, “13.  One to change the bulb and the other 12 to make sure the power doesn’t go to his/her head.”  Or, “5.  One to change the bulb and the other four to discuss how it could have been done better.”  No, I don’t think so.  At last, someone has finally come up with one that that may reflect some truth — true enough that I find it terribly depressing. Those of you with dedicated joke forwarders among your internet friends have probably seen it: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb? We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. We explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted — all of which are equally valid paths to spiritual luminescence. Ah, well…. However, my favorite light bulb joke poking fun at another of my self-identifications has always been, “How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one, and that’s not funny.”  Now that’s funny!

The reason that stupid ethnic jokes are not particularly amusing is not that they are in­sulting to a particular group of people — my (no longer) secret sin is loving accurately edgy ethnic jokes however insulting they are to the group of people they target — but that they are point­less.  Stupidity is not funny in itself, and to assign it to one group of people whose only reason for being targeted as stupid is their country of origin, is even less funny.  In effect, stupidity, which is almost universal, and how­ever genetic, not confined to one ethnic identity, is more to be pitied than ridiculed.  But when a joke spot­lights and pokes fun at some real foible, then it has significance as well as humor.  And some­times even the targets of the jokes enjoy them.  If they are targeted on the bull’s-eye, the tar­gets sometimes like them even better than the people who are telling them because they have a clearer sense of their truth.  I don’t know anyone who laughs harder at Jewish mother jokes than Jewish people. Do you know how many Jewish mothers it takes to change a light bulb?

Which, of course, is one of the reasons I like that feminist light bulb joke so much — be­cause it is about feminists, of whom I am one, and because it hits right on the bulls-eye.  There is nothing more humorless, more joylessly earnest, than a certain type of feminism.  It is an earnestness that pervades much of modern sensibility about ecology, animal rights, health and nutrition issues and political correctness as well, and I don’t know whether that is because feminism has influenced them, or whether all of them simply have some of the same charac­teristics. I would hate to think that such earnest­ness is a necessary consequence of a sense of social responsi­bility, because a lack of humor is a very dangerous thing.  One of the things that has been worrying me about it is that it seems to be making me lose my own sense of humor, so this sermon is really for me more than for any of you.  One of the first things we need to do about all these matters is to lighten up a little.  The earnest ones need to and so do I.  Recently on the Unitarian Universalist minister’s email chat someone sent in a joke of which the focus was a rabbi, and the earnestness of the discussion of whether or not the joke was amusing was enough to make anyone lose whatever sense of humor he or she might have. So if you can bear with me, I want to talk earnestly today about the dangers of earnestness.

To a great degree when I talk about tran­scendence or the holy, I am talking about sort of an ultimate fitness of things.  No matter how supernaturally oriented reli­gion is, it sooner or later ends up in questions of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood, all the pos­sibilities of valuing.  The most primitive religions, basing all their ritual on the placation of seem­ingly whimsical divine powers, still put a right­ness in the center and object of their worship.  That, after all, is what wor­ship is: the recognition and shaping of that which is of worth.  What is right to them may merely be keeping a god happy and what is wrong may be whatever makes him/her angry, but it’s still right and wrong.  It is still an idea of the fitness of things and of what is important and what is trivial.  It is, it seems to me, the most impor­tant job of theological dis­course and the religious sensibility to distinguish between what is important, what is significant, what is holy, and what is not, and then con­cen­trate on what is.

That is why humor is one of the languages we can use to talk about the holy.  A sense of humor is the recognition of the transcendent fitness of things.  The last time I talked about this someone asked me if I was saying that there is no salvation without a sense of humor, and although I think that may be going a bit far, there is a bit of truth to it. A sense of humor is far more than an ability to see the funny side of things.  It includes an abil­ity to recognize what things have no funny side; when it is appropriate to laugh and when it is not; what is important and what is trivial.  There is nothing whatsoever that a person with a sense of humor can find funny about war in Iraq, the scourge of AIDS in Africa, or the increasing danger and bigotry of world-wide religious fundamentalism.  But the hu­morous person can weigh the importance of those things in com­parison with a vulgar remark from a stranger on the street.

Years ago I had a bumper sticker on my car that said, “I brake for unicorns.”  Uni­corns have a mythic significance, a deep reality that somehow transcends the fact that they not only do not now, but have never, existed.  I was a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books about hobbits since long before he wrote the trilogy that made them a cult figure, but when I saw the bumper sticker that said, “I brake for unicorns and hobbits,” it somehow seemed to debase the mythic value of the unicorns.  Furry-footed hobbits are all very well, and Tolkien’s world had been a magic one for me, but you can’t, somehow, put a new imaginative creation on the same plane as a deep tradition.  Well, I couldn’t anyway, and when you do, it seems to me that you are missing the point both of leg­end and of imagination.  The only reason I didn’t remove my bumper sticker was the qual­ity of the glue that it was stuck with, but that I realized I wanted to was probably the begin­ning of my fear that my sense of humor may not stand up to the strain of earnestness even in play.

It takes a sense of humor to understand and deal with paradox, and it occurs to me that the problem may lie with our lack of under­standing of our own absolutly vital part in the universe which is concurrent with our utter in­significance, the paradox of all paradoxes.  Simply by our existence, we remake the uni­verse.  On the most material level, just the fact of our living rearranges all the existing molecules in pat­terns that would not exist if we did not.  Our most trivial acts have conse­quences that we can’t even begin to judge.  At the same time, we will die, even the planet on which we live will die, but long before it does, all trace of our existence will have been erased.  We have, however, an even greater unimportance than that.  We are indi­viduals in a mass of billions of individuals, and very little that we will or create will make much difference to those billions.  What is more, most of those bil­lions don’t even know us, and of those who do, even fewer think that we are as im­por­tant as we think we are.  People have their own lives to live, their own concerns, their own joys and sorrows, and we impinge proba­bly on far fewer than we think.  Our opinions and our feelings matter almost not at all to anyone but ourselves most of the time. It really does take a sense of humor to be as humble as we deserve to be and at the same time maintain a sense of our own significance.

It is the sense of one’s personal signifi­cance without the leavening humility offered by a sense of humor which produces the deadly earnestness of so much of our at­tempt to make the world a better place, and our in­ability to judge the appropriate­ness of what we do, or to accept that when others disagree with us they are not nec­essarily either stupid, evil or indifferent.

For example, one of the consequences of the feminist earnestness is the focus on sexual harass­ment and abuse. There is nothing in the least good or amusing about those things, but the way in which it is sometimes approached can be not only monotonous but dangerous. One of my continuing education experiences was to take a course in it from the point of view of the clergy. The workshop almost seemed to imply that heterosexual sex itself was simply a way to maintain an oppressive patriarchal soci­ety. All the villains were male, all the victims were female, and being a victim cleared you of all responsibility for anything that happened to you. Reactions to such a presentation could only be dismissal of what should have been its important mes­sage about appropriate relationships — or fear. I have colleagues who will not counsel a member of the opposite sex any more, and that kind of thinking, rife in various places because of real problems, is making any contact between men and women a little scary, I suspect. It has occurred to be that it is this kind of earnestness that causes so many younger women who share feminist goals to deny that they are feminists. It’s a good cause, but a lack of a sense of proportion can do a great deal of damage.

I think too of the animal rights activists who once released all the monkeys from the Tulane research center. They were certain that they were right, that impris­oned animals should be freed, that to do research on them is evil, and the only proper thing to do was free them. Except that those monkeys were not suited for the environment of the suburban and rural area in which the center existed. Those earnest animal lovers placed the monkeys in greater danger and suffering than caused by research. In fact, as I well know, having been on an animal care committee for an institution using animals in research, there is very careful oversight of such research. Whether or not that is in itself ethical is some­thing about which well-meaning, thoughtful people can disagree, but there is no question about the danger for those poor monkeys released to a hostile environ­ment. Earnestness can even kill.

There are serious problems in the world, politically, socially, environmentally, reli­giously.  It is important to take them seriously and to try to solve them, but it is also important to keep a sense of pro­portion as well — a sense of proportion that is in fact, a sense of humor.  When you do that, not only will you tend to alienate fewer people, but you will also begin to recognize what’s really important: playing tennis for fun rather than to maintain your girlish or boyish figure or in the grim pursuit of health, learning a new dance step, reading some­thing that won’t teach you a thing, but will give you a lot of pleasure, appreciating chocolate cake, noticing the rainbows in the beveled corners of the window, feeding someone who’s hungry, voting in an election in which no one is running for presi­dent, flirting with some­one, falling in love, telling jokes, even ethnic ones, even, heaven forbid, sexy ones, loving the taste of honey, the shape of a rose, the unreal perfec­tion of camellias.  Save the world, sure, but let’s lighten up a little, so we can understand what we’re saving it for.