PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO LIFE AND WORK
They say that everything we do in life is preparation for something we will do later in life. Yet, somehow, having had about 100 billion people die in all of human history, and having buried the dead for 350,000 years, death remains the thing for which most people are most unprepared.
You might think that by now we’ve had enough practice to get us used to the idea, but apparently not. Fear of death is one of the strongest fears of human beings.
The moment we are born we are headed for a certain death, or headed for death certainly. But, fear of death —whether it’s a fear of the unknown, a religious proposition, or something else– stimulates denial, through which we avoid proper planning, and are often left suspended in not-very-well-suppressed anxiety.
Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. ~Folk saying
Steve Allen saw and showed us that we can find humor in our fears: “The most common fear is the fear of dying. The second most common fear is speaking in public. The third most common fear is dying while speaking on public.”
On the other side of the coin, Malachy McCourt reveals that fears lurk in our humor: “What is the mortality rate around here? The same as everywhere else, one per person.”
Hams on Wry is applied and therapeutic humor
Working with psychiatrist Joel Schwartz, MD, calling ourselves HAMS ON WRY, we have launched a funny, sensitive, and useful talk, “Laugh Will & Testament”. This is the first in a series based on psychologically sound principles for making it easier to talk about things that are hard to talk about.
Humor allows us to be open to new perspectives and, when coupled with laughter, helps discharge emotional tension. More than merely talking about the topic, we offer participants experiences and activities based on existing beliefs, theories, and scientific findings. These activities have the potential to be therapeutic by allaying fear, anger and depression; by strengthening optimism; by lifting spirits (pun acknowledged). We can do a better job of planning for the end and enjoying the rest of our lives.
When presented by capable mental-health-and-humor experts, humor becomes a therapeutic ally. Audiences relax as they experience a process of immersion in death-related humor. When they are more relaxed, they are ready to consider alternative perspectives on the topic; to plan, and to consider adding non-traditional, light-hearted touches to end-of-life processes such as obituaries and memorial celebrations.
I’ve had so much plastic surgery that when I die they’ll donate my body to Tupperware.
I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
“The halls of heaven ring with the laughter of the saints.”
Thirty-some years ago, when I was drawn into a ‘calling’ for humor, I was impressed with the quips that showed how humor, aging, illness, death, and happiness might be connected.
“Enjoy life, nobody is getting out alive.”
“You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing.”
“You’re only young once, but you can remain immature indefinitely.”
“Humor may not cure anything but it makes the unbearable a little more bearable.”
“Comedians have a strange vocabulary; they want to kill but they don’t want to die.”
When I was just starting my humor exploration, health was touted as the central theme and promise of what humor could bring if we did it right. Norman Cousins, and a group of nurses, were leading the way. Death and dying were not tackled head-on, but were alluded to around the edges of various humor prescriptions.
According to trends in religion and the funeral industry, things are changing. I have seen a prediction that within a couple of years, more people will opt for cremation than burial. In today’s world of global communications and modern thanatology, more people are open to things like fun funerals and good goodbyes.
A horribly sad, confusing, and solemn time
When she died in 1962, my mother’s youngest living sibling was my Uncle Irv (now, himself, of blessed memory). During the week of “shiva”, the traditional Jewish religious observance of the first part of mourning, he taught me some important lessons about death and dying that I have practiced ever since.
One lesson was that in grief there is a need –perhaps an obligation– to balance the heavy weight of loss with something light and self-caring.
There is no way that he could have realized that he was helping to prepare me for what I am doing now. But he did.
I was 20 years old. My mother, age 52, had died of ovarian cancer just weeks following the diagnosis. We were observing “shiva” at my parents’ apartment. Shiva is the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. The ritual is referred to as “sitting shiva”. Immediately after burial, people assume the status of mourner. This state lasts for seven days, during which family members traditionally gather in one home (preferably the home of the deceased) and receive visitors, observing the traditional Jewish week of mourning immediately following the burial of a loved one.
The afternoon of the third day, I was sitting on a couch next to Uncle Irv. We had been sitting in virtual silence for a couple of days when he leaned over and whispered a question to me, “Have you ever had a manicure?”
I didn’t believe I had heard him correctly so I asked him to repeat the question. He did. I said, “No.”
The conversation went something like this.
UI: “Well, let’s get a manicure.”
UI: “Right now.”
UI: “There’s a salon close by. I’ll bet we could walk in and get manicures together.”
Me: “Are you sure it’s OK?”
UI: “Yes. Especially when you are so sad. Even in grief, you must take care of yourself. You must be kind to yourself.”
A few minutes later, with the explanation that we were going out for some fresh air, we excused ourselves from the small group of condolers in the apartment. During the walk to the salon, Uncle Irv talked to me Yoda-like, imparting life lessons that have been valuable to me ever since. I felt better.
Now, I am at the stage of life that some refer to as The Third Act.
There are surely more days behind me than ahead. I’m prepared to tackle the topic directly, and with humor. In the process, I intend to offer others the opportunity to do the same.
I’ve cultivated a deeply appreciative understanding of the psychology of humor, the science of laughter, and pathways to happiness –including more than 40 years of Buddhist meditations on mortality. I am closer than ever to coming to terms with my mortality, and blending it all into programs and seminars on the topic.
Every time I deliver the Laugh Will & Testament talk, I gratefully remember those who have helped me prepare for the occasion.
They say that everything we do in life is preparation for something we will do later in life. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I think they are right.
Steve Wilson is an award-winning psychologist, speaker and author. He and Pam, The Empress of Everything, live in Columbus, Ohio.He is the Cheerman of The Bored of World Laughter Tour, Inc., and Director of National Humor Month. For more information visit The Facebook page
Laugh Will & Testament, and the websites www.WorldLaughterTour.com, and www.HumorMonth.com, or phone 1-800-669-5233.