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When humor hurts

A Christian Science perspective.

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Most of us love to laugh. Humor can lighten a mood, break the ice in stiff situations, and bring people together. A genuinely good joke or comic remark may add needed perspective and insight, even to political and social problems. 

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, observed in an address in 1893, “I agree with Rev. Dr. Talmage, that ‘there are wit, humor, and enduring vivacity among God’s people’ ” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 117).

But humor can also be used to hurt. Whether it’s the sarcastic taunts of a bully or insensitive quips of a comedian targeting a particular group, humor can be distorted for negative purposes, as many believe was the case at the recent Academy Awards ceremony.   

In extreme circumstances, a form of humor can even be an instrument of cruelty. The mocking of others, often those in a minority or in a vulnerable position, unfortunately is not new.  

The Gospel of Matthew describes how Christ Jesus was mocked by Pilate’s soldiers following the judicial procedure that led to the crucifixion: “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand; and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29). 

As far as Jesus’ response to this treatment is concerned, Mrs. Eddy states: “Meekly our Master met the mockery of his unrecognized grandeur. Such indignities as he received, his followers will endure until Christianity’s last triumph” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 39).  

Although Jesus’ situation was unique, mockery, sarcasm, teasing, and being made fun of by others can be encountered by anyone in school, work, or home situations. Some of such behavior is well or kindly meant and should be taken as such. We all need the ability to laugh at ourselves and our foibles. 

But there is a line that can be crossed when humor makes people feel uncomfortable or is cringe-inducing, and we can recognize this even if the object of the joke is not ourselves.

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For those interested in the effect of prayer on our lives, what can we do to ameliorate such situations, whether they come directly into our experience or we simply encounter them in the media? 

I believe in the power of the meek and prayerful acknowledgment that it is simply not in the nature of the man or woman God created to believe that there is any benefit or joy in crossing a line at which humor becomes destructive at another’s expense. This truth has a healing effect. 

Although the concept of schadenfreude – a German word that means taking pleasure in another’s distress – has gained coinage in the English-speaking world and is present in modern discourse, it does not mean that there can be real satisfaction or joy in doing something that you wouldn’t want done to yourself.    

The battle for high ratings in the media may seem to fuel decisions as to how much edgy or even objectionable humor might be allowed on any given occasion. And the individual who makes jokes at another’s expense may feel that he or she gains admiration from bystanders. Comedians readily acknowledge that it is easier to make up cruel, negative jokes than good, appropriate ones. But these patterns of behavior are based on mistaken notions that deriding and insulting people could possibly bring real benefit for the creator or the audience. We each have the God-given capacity to bring needed intelligence to any creative challenge. 

We can strive to be sure our humorous remarks are in keeping with the golden rule of expressing only the good and gentle humor we would want expressed toward us. Truth and Love guide each of us in what we say and do as we go through our day. And the same Christ heals the effects of any mistaken attempts at humor that produce hurtful effects. As a hymn by Maria Louise Baum states: “From th’ accuser’s mocking voices/ Christ, our mighty Counsel, saves us” (“Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 112).

The healing of the negative aspects of comedy will bring a more intelligent, meaningful sense of humor into our lives, bringing genuine insight and joy.   

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