The appropriate use of humour has been on my mind this week, as I find myself back in the chilly UK. My week in the sunshine was definitely worth the journey, which was remarkably tolerable, certainly by comparison with other experiences I have had in the past. Nothing alarming happened on the flight, although my husband remarked that he would be keeping himself well strapped into his emergency exit seat, given recent events.
Our week in a hotel on the outskirts of Marrakesh was a new experience for me, as I have never before travelled to a country where the dominant religion is Islam. Hearing the early call to prayer was an amazing experience, as were the sights and sounds of the historic city and the souks. Most incredible of all, however, was the hot air balloon ride my husband talked me into.
I noticed the option on our hotel’s list of activities and remarked that I could certainly see the appeal but was not sure whether or not I felt able to go ahead with what seemed like such a risky activity. Standing in a basket, thousands of feet up into the air, dangling from a sack full of hot air has always seemed to me to be a somewhat insane proposition, but my husband gawped at me in disbelief. “But you’ve been up in a light aircraft with me!” he spluttered. (My husband gained his pilot’s licence many years before we met). Long story short, he enlightened me as to the fact that – statistically – light aircraft are infinitely more dangerous than hot air balloons (a fact he didn’t pass on to me before I gave the light aircraft a go). My husband reads air accident reports as a hobby (everybody needs one), and explained that balloon accidents tend to be what amounts to no more than a bumpy landing, leaving someone with a broken wrist or collar bone – they don’t tend to result in fatalities. So, armed with my husband’s superior knowledge of all things air crash-related, I agreed. We booked ourself onto the flight.
The flight was at dawn, which meant we saw the sun rise over the Atlas mountains, a simply incredible sight. The flight itself was absolutely wonderful, with no sense of motion apparent – as you move with the wind, you can’t feel the wind as you move, making the process remarkably tranquil. The silence is also striking, when you’re used to the engine noise of any other means of flight. Not only did I enjoy the experience, I would do it again in a heartbeat. As it turned out, I was not in the least bit afraid once we got there, and the French pilot dispelled any last-minute nerves with a tension-breaking bit of humour. Once we were a few feet off the ground, he turned to us and said, “First time in a balloon?” We nodded vigorously. “Me too!” he said, as he gave the burners a blast.
This kind of humour is right up my street and is without question the best way to win me over in pretty much any situation. The last time I thought about this in any depth was when I first went to a local osteopath. I have always been nervous of osteopathy, as I have scoliosis of the spine and my vertebrae don’t really behave like everybody else’s. As a result, I have awful visions of someone trying to crack my spine in a way it just won’t work and somehow breaking it, leaving me paralysed or worse. I always arrive in any clinic with a list of don’ts and caveats as long as my arm, and most osteopaths nod sagely and do exactly as they’re told.
Ian, however, is different.
“Look,” I said to him, in our first appointment. “You need to understand that my spine is quite rigid in places and won’t bend in the way you might expect. I’m most anxious not to get injured so it’s really important that you don’t do anything beyond what I’m confortable with.”
“No problem,” said Ian. “But what you need to understand is that if I break your neck …”
I started to babble. “Oh gosh, no, I totally realise that your career is in the balance and that as a professional you will take the ultimate care. I wasn’t suggesting that you would be anything other than hyper-cautious, I do realise that, it’s just I’m …”
“No no” he interrupted. “If I break your neck, then I’m left with a body to dispose of. And it’s not as easy as you might think. Especially if I’ve got a lot of appointments.”
I stared at him for a moment, then reacted in the only way appropriate. I laughed my head off. What an absolute legend. While this kind of humour might not be for everyone, it absolutely works for me in moments of tension. When I was 16, my orthodontist reflected on our 12-year journey of hideous braces and major surgery. My teeth were not perfectly straight, but they were roughly in line and infinitely better than when we started. What he wanted to do was to reflect on our excellent progress and a job well done. What he actually said was, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Just as well for him that I found it hilarious.
Humour is my go-to response in most tense situations and has helped me to deal with innumerable challenges in my life. I am not alone in this. I know one couple who have visited North Korea as tourists (it is possible, believe it or not) and recall one of them saying that the main problem she had was not laughing in moments when ultimate seriousness was demanded – when, for example, witnessing the 24-hour wailing that goes on in the room where the bodies of deceased illustrious leaders lie in state. The performative grief was so ludicrous that she was completely gripped by the urge to laugh, especially since they had just done the tour of the government building which included a map of the world without the USA on it, plus an Apple Macbook Pro sat on the desk underneath it. I totally understand this urge towards inappropriate laughter. I am the sort of person that has to be careful not to laugh at funerals – that feeling of tense, wild hysteria often overtakes me at the most inppropriate of moments.
There’s a time and a place for everything, but some of us find release in the use of humour at what might seem like the most inappropriate of times. People in particularly stressful jobs probably best understand this kind of gallows humour and to some extent I think it’s cultural too. Wherever I am in the world, nothing makes me feel more at home than someone poking fun at what would otherwise be a tense or serious situation.