Thursday, February 21, 2013

Utilizing Humor to Redefine Tragedy

Life Is Beautiful (ItalianLa vita è bella) is a 1997 Italian comedy-drama film directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian book shop owner, who must employ his fertile imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp


Serious gestures are associated with serious concerns or even danger, whereas humorous gestures have long since served as indicators to others that there is no present danger. 

So, what is going on inside this man's mind when he pretends to speak German, and then publicly mocks his Nazi prison guards? Surely he recognizes the danger of his actions with respect to his predicament. 

Humorous behavior, particularly in the face of danger, is more complex than someone just cracking a few jokes at what might seem like inappropriate time. To understand why someone would do such a thing we have to first consider what is going on in their mind: the sensations, perceptions, memories, thoughts, dreams, motives, emotional feelings, and other subjective experiences they are having, which would lead them to behave in a manner considered ludicrous by most people's understanding of appropriate social behavior. 

Beautifully depicted in Roberto Benigni's film is a loving father who utilizes, at great risk to his own safety, humor as a tool to shield his son from the harsh realities of their situation. More concerned with his son's emotional well-being, he turns tragedy into a game, a façade that he defiantly defends, ultimately with his own life. 

Would it not have been better to just keep quiet, secretly whispering positive or otherwise humorous messages to his son without such elaborate and risky antics? Would his son have continued to believe him had he not physically reinforced the notion that they were indeed playing a game? Did he not act in a manner he considered necessary in order to keep up the charade? Did his absurd behavior not create a pleasant appearance for his son, which, in the end, freed his son from the devastating experiences associated with the lifelong anguish and torment that would have accompanied being held against one's will? 

Our brains react to external stimuli, but they react stronger to the internal dialogues constantly defining and reshaping our sensations and perceptions. Pitted against preconceived beliefs, we behave in ways that are not always understood from the outside looking in, but rather best explained from the inside looking out. 

Speaking from an all too personal experience, I can tell you that a myriad of complex thoughts and emotions occur that cause an individual to uphold a lighthearted façade in the face of tragedy. When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was the nature of my personal belief system; my hopes, dreams, fears, and in the end, my courage that kept me from sharing the bad news with my family, from destroying their peace of mind and emotional well-being. It was my love for them that gave me the strength to defend their emotional well-being, and in the process, while largely unknown to me at the time, what ultimately resulted in defending my own. 

Presuming the worst, I quickly and quietly worked to put my legal affairs in order. Then, I quit working, estimating how long we could survive on savings before the harsh realities of economic discord interrupted our otherwise happy, stable lifestyle. Next, we had a marvelous Christmas: a magical Christmas by which all future Christmas' would be considered. Afterwards, we took off on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling to over forty countries where we all learned more about the world and ourselves in the process. 

Taking tons of photos, hoping against hope that they, at their young age, would not forget me, I gave to my children, and myself in the process, something that a serious attitude could have never given us: the poignantly powerful memories associated with having fun! 

As a result, we all experienced living in a world where the theme was joyful abundance rather than the devastating feelings associated with loss. Instead, I gave them the most beautiful recess a kid could hope to have and that a parent could hope to give their child, believing all the while that the moment recess ended, the nightmare would begin. I knew I wouldn't be there to protect them from the heartache, so instead I gave them what I thought they would need to survive it: love, appreciation, respect, encouragement, and a healthy dose of good humor.

Then something strange happened: I didn't die. 

Instead, I woke up to a new reality; one where I had allowed myself to be funny, where I had taught my children to look at otherwise negative situations and see the good; to a world where we didn't concern ourselves with obstacles without first considering their solutions; to a world where a lighthearted perspective could magically turn stress into confidence, a sensation strengthened by the healthy distance we give ourselves from our problems. 

Placing myself in the man's shoes above, I could only hope to have behaved as nobly. I would have tried, perhaps, to be more careful, slightly less willing to take risks, but then again, I'm a mother. By nature, most mothers behave more conservatively with their children than do fathers. Also, a slightly more conservative story might not have been powerful enough to convey such a poignant message.

The message that we have a choice in how we respond to tragedy. The message that we never truly know what the future will bring. The message that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to at least try to uphold our emotional well-being in the face of extreme difficulty as well as during those little moments of frustration when we could very easily complain instead of laugh. The message that destroying our sense of well-being will not allow us to make the personal adjustments that might ultimately prevent a bad situation from escalating into a worse situation. The message that humor might not save everyone, but it might indeed be as powerful as Benigni beautifully showed it to be in this film. 

If, in the end, a little more laughter is the only thing that separates us from feeling helpless, then in my opinion, laughter is an indispensable commodity, and those who help others to laugh, indispensable contributors to the emotional well-being of a vastly growing global society that is undeniably dependent upon one another for upholding the emotional well-being and happiness of everyone. 

Dedicated to my children

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