When Is It Okay to Joke?

The ability to laugh, we know, is vital. To do so in the midst of terror and anxiety is even more important. The following excerpt is from an essay titled "Joking With God in a Fragile World," by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. It's published in Walking With God in a Fragile World, a collection of original pieces by spiritual writers and theologians reflecting on their relationship with God in these uncertain times.

We may make terror tolerable by looking it in the eye and joking about it. By joking we reframe the episode in our own terms, transforming it from a passive suffering thrust upon us into an active response to the world; we take possession of it by retelling it in terms that the perpetrator could not.... gallows humor is designed precisely to uncover the naked truth, however painful that flaying may be. Terry Southern reported a conversation he had with Stanley Kubrick about Dr. Strangelove, in which Kubrick told him that he was going to make a film about "our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war." He said that he had thought of the story as a "straightforward melodrama" until one morning when he "woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic, to be treated in any conventional manner." He said he could only see it now as "some kind of hideous joke."...

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2003
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