Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Humor as Aikido or “Tongue-Fu”

For many of us, fighting or fleeing is the automatic reaction to conflict. It is possible to develop a third way—go with the flow. Thomas Crum, author of The Magic of Conflict, teaches the martial art aikido as a metaphor for embracing conflict as an opportunity. Rather than fighting back or running away, you learn to go with the flow, to embrace the energy. Crum urges us to relate to conflict as a gift of energy, in which neither side loses and a new dance is created.

I first encountered Crum at a conference sponsored by The Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, New York. In demonstrating aikido, he proposed that humor can be a verbal form of aikido. Crum tells how a teacher dealt with her students when they all conspired to push their books off their desks at the same time. She had her back to them, writing on the blackboard, when the clock struck 2:00 and in unison the books hit the floor. Without missing a beat, the teacher turned around, pushed her book off her desk, and said, “Sorry I'm late.” By joining in the mischief, she demonstrated going with the flow.

Another example of using humor as aikido or “tongue-fu” is from Joel Goodman, director of The Humor Project. He tells the story of a woman who got an obscene phone call at 3:00 A.M. The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Can I take your clothes off?” The woman yelled into the phone, “Well, what the hell are you doing with them on anyway?”

I shared the above stories with the late Bea Swanson, an Ojibwe elder. She said when she gets an obscene phone call, she asks the caller if he needs to talk. She is there to listen.

Some time ago, for my professional growth, I attended a week-long humor workshop in the New York Adirondacks, put on by The Humor Project. One evening a group of us, men and women, went to the local bar. Usually I don’t like the bar scene, but I figured there was safety in numbers. I was standing with our group, when one of the locals, who was drunk, took me by the hand and led me over to dance with his buddy. Mind you, he didn’t ask, but just pulled me over. I was shocked and didn’t offer resistance at the time. Thank God, his buddy wasn’t interested in dancing. A while later when I was sitting at the end of our booth, the same guy came over, picked me up (and I am no featherweight) and carried me to the dance floor to dance with him this time.

The irony was that we had just learned about using humor as aikido. The session was on how humor, like aikido, can be an art form turning a conflicting situation into an opportunity. One learns to use the energy of an attacker and turn the attack into a dance, where no one gets hurt.

Here I am on the dance floor (again without being asked). How do I turn this energy, which feels like an attack, into a dance? It was a fast dance so I could keep my distance from him. However, at one point in the dance, he decided to pick me up again. This time, since I was ready and had my arms in front of me, I pushed off his chest. He finally got the message, and I returned to the booth with the other workshop participants.

I was upset. The next day, for the first time, I had the courage to talk to four men about that experience. I received a broad range of responses. The lawyer said, “Boys will be boys.” The psychologist’s comment about the man’s behavior was that it was inappropriate. The high school counselor realized he had not talked with his eighteen- year-old daughter about these kinds of things. (I appreciated that someone might benefit from this incident.) Finally, the male kindergarten teacher said, “That was a violation.” His response made a difference; somebody got it!

At the gift center at the local park, I bought myself a present to turn this negative experience around: a T-shirt with wild animals on it and the inscription—Get to Know the Locals. Despite this experience, it was a wonderful week.

If you want world peace, you must learn to let go of attachments and truly live like nomads. That's where I no mad at you, you no mad at me.

—Swami Beyondananda

Monday, December 5, 2011

Don’t Be Offended, Even if It Is Intended

In my humor workshops, we explore various uses of humor to turn tense situations around and brainstorm lighthearted options for reducing the impact of stress on our lives. Stress is one component of life, perhaps, part of the human condition. Stress emanates from positive events as well as negative. Whatever the source, we can learn to reduce its impact in our lives by incorporating laughter into our day. One common source of stress, particularly for women, is taking someone’s comments too seriously. It is not easy, but since I’ve applied the practice of not being offended, I am a lot happier and more serene. People have to work harder to offend me. On the other hand, it’s a paradox. Don’t be offended, and don’t put up with put-downs. I urge people who are offended by toxic humor to use the offense as an opportunity to educate.

One simple technique is to ask the offender to explain the joke or comment. A joke often loses its appeal when it needs to be explained. Avoid sources of negative humor. That is, avoid people you experience as being negative or offensive. Another way to build your humor immunity is to be prepared. Who says humor always has to be spontaneous? Have humorous comebacks ready for situations or circumstances that repeatedly happen.

In her book, They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor, Regina Barreca describes a great comeback. Former news anchor Connie Chung was asked by a new co-worker about the relationship between her position as an Asian- American woman and her rapid rise in the broadcasting field. Her response to the insensitive question was both keen and humorous. She pointed to the senior vice president and announced, “Bill likes the way I do his shirts.”

Personally, I am not quick at comebacks. I often think of a funny response to a situation a day or two later. Of course, it’s better late than never. It takes practice. I still enjoy my funny responses even if they don’t occur to me right away. At times when you wished that you had a witty response, talk it over with others. Together you might come up with one. Even if you didn’t get to use it at the moment, it can be a good way to let go of negative experiences. And you’ll be prepared if a similar situation happens again.

During one humor and spirituality retreat, a participant, Pam, brought up the following situation in which she would have liked a comeback: While she was standing in a buffet line at a restaurant, a couple of white guys behind her were impatient with two Latinos ahead of them and snidely questioned whether the Latinos had green cards. Her response might have been to say, “I wonder where we would be if Native Americans had required us to have green cards.”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Humor and Stress

Laughter is one of the most effective tools we have in overcoming stress and the limitations it puts on our lives. Humor allows us to forego pomposity, and increases our possibilities to discover options and live joyfully.

—Loretta LaRoche, public speaker

Stress is one of the leading causes of ill health. Humor, a powerful coping mechanism, relieves stress and adds years to life. The Loma Linda University Web site states that, according to a President’s Science Advisory, stress costs our economy $200 billion annually.

According to Jane Wagner, in her delightful book, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, “Reality is the greatest source of stress amongst those in touch with it.” Wagner further asserts that since she put reality on the “back burner,” her life became “jam-packed and fun-filled.” One way of reducing tension in our lives is to envision a lighter view of reality. For instance, I grew up with the notion that life is hard work. Since I have now put that view of reality on the back burner, my life, too, has become jam-packed and fun-filled.