Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Crying is No Laughing Matter, Or Maybe It Is...

My family has one, not-so-enforced (but very much encouraged) rule of the house: no crying; or rather, no crying if you’re emotionally wounded; that is, no crying if I call you fat and mean it and you sit there with your head cast down, sniveling about your love-handles. There is an overriding presence of “Suck it up” under the roof I call home, and should your eyes ever start watering because one of us said something mean to you, well, you’d be better off getting sympathy from a psychopath.

Instead, we opt to deal with your watery, emotional excretions by way of making you laugh. My sister was upset that I had called her annoying, and, being in her preteens, she automatically assumed that what I said meant that she was a ne’er-do-well and the recipient of everyone’s unchecked hatred (not true). So as she sat on the floor with a pillow over her face failing to hide the fact that she was crying (my brother and I could hear her), I gently prodded her with my toe and said, more or less, that she looked ridiculous. I asserted the silliness of her response to my harmless insult until she got up and furiously yelled, with tears streaming from her red, bulging eyes, that “It’s not funny.”

But it was.

After that exclamation, she buried her head back under the pillow and assumed the fetal position, and I took out my camera and started recording her hysterics with even more insensitive commentary.

“This is Julie crying. She’s been going at it for about five minutes now, though I don’t know why. All I said was that she was annoying…blah blah.”

My brother laughed, I laughed, my sister tried to avoid the camera lens (how she saw it with her face beneath a pillow, I don’t know), and this went on until she got up in a fit of rage and tried to wrench the camera from me. I used it as an opportunity to show her what she looked like as a bawling curled up form. “It’s not funny,” she said, and then she giggled while repeating the same thing. “It’s not funny.”

While I’ve been of the opinion that any serious discussion about the physicality and visceral aspect of laughter is a heap of quackery, Spencer had me rethink my opinion. His relief theory, while certainly not applicable to every sort of laughter (he says his explanation “applies only to the laughter produced by acute pleasure or pain” (105)), is one way to interpret why people, like my sister, shift from what appear to be two different emotional extremes: crying and laughing (pain and pleasure). He says that “there are three channels along which nerve centers in a state of tension may discharge themselves” and that “rarely, if ever, does it happen that a state of nervous tension present to consciousness as a feeling, expends itself in one direction only” (102). The act of laughing, then, is one way—one channel—in which this accumulated emotional energy is expelled from the body.

So, in the case of my sister, it was simply a matter of redirecting where her intense emotional buildup flowed out: crying or laughing. Spencer also later states that “among several persons who witness the same ludicrous occurrence, there are some who do not laugh, it is because there has arisen in them an emotion not participated in by the rest, and which is sufficiently massive to absorb all the nascent excitement” (107). I’d assume, then, that the opposite, the occurrence of something originally not funny and changing it into something laughable, is possible so long as the emotion that is generated is large enough to absorb all the “nascent” distress initially present. The grumpy, moody channel is shut, and the comedic, laughing one is opened.

With the help of Freud, my seemingly thoughtless and hurtful method of dealing with my sister’s weeping is further justified (though I’m not going to assert that it works all the time). He writes “By [humor’s] repudiation of the possibility of suffering, it takes its place in the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer” (113). By trying to make my sister laugh amidst her tears, I was perhaps attempting to suppress her pain, something, Freud says, is a natural tendency of man: to avoid suffering. This, of course, makes me look like the good guy and casts my apparent insensitivity in a soothing light.

I’m not going to say that crying and laughter are nearly synonymous (though sometimes we laugh until we cry), though the relation between the two is understandable especially with respect to Spencer’s and Freud’s takes on a relief theory on humor. So perhaps the motto at my house should be (and here I’m going to quote BBC’s television program Robin Hood. Sue me): “I’m not crying; I’m just laughing on the wrong side of my face.”

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