Oppression Is Not a Laughing Matter — Or Is It?

“Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.”

Sir Thomas More, “Prayer for Good Humor,” early 1500’s

Last evening my wife and I watched the 2018 movie, “Pope Francis, A Man of His Word.”  It is not a critical look at the Pope, or an objective assessment of his strengths and weaknesses and what he has so far accomplished. It is an unabashed presentation of the Pope as a great man, a moral leader of the world, essentially a saint.

The ending surprised me. After an hour and a half of footage of him speaking and interacting with people all over the world, sharing his thinking and his prayers and his unquestionably genuine concern for “the least of these,” the poor, the final minute finds him talking about two things: the value of a smile and the importance of a sense of humor. Pope Francis tells the camera that just about every day he reads Sir Thomas More’s poem quoted above.

I was struck by the Pope doing this. Is he right that smiling and a sense of humor are so important?

I think there are a lot of people on the political Left who don’t agree with this. I know a whole bunch of them. They are the way I tend to be: very upset with the reality of the world in the grip of a mendacious and maddening, mega-corporation dominated capitalist system that is literally destroying the world’s ecosystems and causing uncountable suffering. How can one make jokes and be concerned about having a sense of humor in such a world?

When I was young I didn’t tell jokes. I didn’t laugh very much. I was very intense, I took myself and my beliefs very seriously. I remember once speaking at Boston College during the time of the Vietnam War and challenging those hearing me to put their lives on the line for change because we needed it so badly. I don’t know if I got through to many people listening to me; my sense at the time was that I hadn’t.

Actually, I still say similar things in my speaking and writing today, 50 years later, but over that time I’ve come to appreciate that this kind of intensity has its limitations. I’ve come to appreciate the value of effective political satire which, by making fun of oppressors, exposes them in a way that can have more of an impact upon the listener than harsh, angry words.

More than that, I’ve learned that, as More points out in the line above –“Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called ‘I,’” — that taking oneself too seriously can lead down a very slippery and self-destructive slope.

A week and a half ago I spoke at a New Jersey activists’ climate conference. I began with one of my favorite inspirational writings, a poem by Chief Yellow Lark, “Let Me Walk in Beauty,” found in the book, “God Makes the Rivers to Flow: Sacred literature of the world,” by Eknath Easwaran. A key line in this poem is similar to More’s (or More’s is similar to his): “”I seek strength not to be greater than my brother or sister but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.”

It’s no joke; it’s a fact: sharing genuine smiles with one another and being able to laugh in the face of oppression and injustice are essential components of building a winning movement.

Ted Glick has been a progressive activist, organizer and writer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.