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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Learning to Laugh at Ourselves

Experience tells us that there is something unusually positive in being someone who can – as we put it – ‘laugh at themselves.’ And equally, something distinctly dangerous in a more stony-faced or imperious manner.

The reason has nothing to do with a love of comedy. We’re not looking for entertainment pure and simple. What we’re fundamentally after is a sign that someone we’re interested in knows themselves well enough to have worked out the many ways in which they are likely to prove enraging and disappointing to someone who is forced to live around them. Given that everyone will at points prove a jerk, we cherish self-deprecating humour as heart-warming evidence that a person might at least be a moderately self-aware, minimally self-justifying, emotionally-curious sort of jerk.

Painting by Goya of a laughing man.
Francisco de Goya, Tío Paquete, 1819-20

There seems an enormous difference between people who let us down while angrily denying they have done so. And those who madden us and – in their less combative moments – can roundly acknowledge their impossible dimensions; people who might ruin aspects of our lives, but have no need to bitterly insist otherwise.

Under the guise of cracking a joke, what the self-humourous person is in essence doing is letting us know that they can well see what is impossible about them and are, in their way, deeply sorry for the multiple inconveniences that they have generated. They might employ irony to touch on their flaws. They might, for example, hint that they understand how bad they are at organisation by noting that if misplacing things were an Olympic sport, they’d have lost their medal by now – or at decisiveness by saying that if they were presented with the choice of tea or coffee, they might take a couple of years and some therapy to work out the answer. It’s not comic genius and it doesn’t have to be. It’s about a deft allusion to a knowledge of how much of a trial one can be.

Alternatively, the self-humorous person might exaggerate their flaws beyond normal measure, in order to wryly take on board how truly outsized they might feel. They might acknowledge their reserve and lack of emotion by saying that the UN have asked them to help reverse the melting of the Antarctic ice shelf. Or they might admit to how unusual and otherworldly they can seem when they’ve been absorbed in their work by saying, on emerging from their study, that their intergalactic spaceship and cosmonaut’s suit are waiting for them in the garden.

To become better able to laugh at ourselves, we don’t need to learn comic techniques. We only need to make a list of everything that is liable to madden other people about us: our anger, our passivity, our self-pity, our laziness, our sentimentality or our bitterness, to start a list… And then calmly to allude to them through ironic under or over statement. 

The primary goal is to bring about a release of tension and – in effect – of fear, in the face of all the things that may be most troubling and frightening about us. When our audience laugh, they aren’t so much amused as relieved. They are being encouraged to know that the person they have to deal with isn’t just an idiot, they are – blessedly – a self-aware idiot, an essential life-saving difference.

We don’t need people to be perfect; we need people to know they are imperfect and then not to blame us for our grief and irritation at finding them so. We want self-aware fools, self-aware blockheads, self-aware ingrates. We want people who know they are pricks and in a small part of their minds, are resolutely intent on evolving into something kinder. 

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