My mother lost her mind but not her sense of humor. She had been diagnosed with vascular dementia, which gradually robbed her of her memory and other mental faculties. In the final stages, there wasn’t much left, and she was having difficulty swallowing. But she could still laugh at a good joke, even when she didn’t get much of anything else. Toward the end, she went into a nursing home. When she was admitted, the intake person saw her wedding ring and asked her how long she had been married to my father, who had died some years earlier. “Fifty-three years,” my mother was able to answer. “That’s wonderful,” said the intake person. “What was the secret of your long marriage?” My mother didn’t miss a beat. “Never hit your spouse with a blunt object,” she deadpanned.
To me, the ability to laugh in the face of adversity is a sacramental act in the formal sense of the term: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Laughter is the signature note of our humanity, more so than language or abstract reasoning or any of the other attributes that supposedly distinguish our species from the other beasts. And unless you can turn humor into an algorithm, you’ll never fool anyone into thinking a computer is human, at least not for long. There is a certain incongruity underlying all humor that just doesn’t lend itself to binary thinking. A joke that requires explanation isn’t funny.
“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power. “He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Nietzsche, who is more closely identified with suffering than with laughs, was nonetheless onto something. It is now well known that laughter triggers the release of endorphins, a natural pain-killer. The ability to laugh at life will never resolve the human predicament, but it can at least take some of the edge off. In any event, those seeking to understand the meaning of life must come armed with a sense of humor. I don’t know that such a thing can ever be put into words. But if so, I suspect it will be delivered as the punch line to a joke. Then you either get it or you don’t.