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.