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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

You Don’t Always Need to Be Funny

Because we feel collectively very good about humour, and know a considerable amount about the dangers of despair and glumness, it can sound odd to suggest that some of us should try to become a little less funny about ourselves, that we should try to crack fewer jokes, laugh less vocally and aim for more frequent moments of solemnity and grief. We shouldn’t – for our own sakes – be quite as comedic as we are. 

17th century painting by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, showing a young cavalier enjoying a joke with his 'sweetheart'.
Frans Hals, Yonker Ramp and his Sweetheart, 1623

A person who grows up in authentic circumstances is allowed to feel sad whenever an occasion demands it. They are able to say how awful the divorce feels and how disappointed they are with the birthday gift. As an adult, they can then cry when someone leaves them, be happy when good news arrives, get angry when they’ve been hurt and envious when someone acquires something they would have liked to have. 

But there are other sorts of childhood where what an offspring experiences is far too dangerous for those around them. Parent mights be too angry or depressed to be able to tolerate any more reality, and they may thereby force their children into precocious proto-careers on the comedy circuit. A person may now tell us with a witty air that going off to boarding school was ‘a right laugh’, that getting slapped around by their ‘daft’ uncle was a ‘hoot’ and that their parent’s bipolar episode was ‘like a hilarious scene from a slapstick movie.’ News of tragic events may be delivered in such genuinely light-hearted ways, it can be easy to forget to notice the pain that is ruthlessly going unmentioned.

It can take a while – and a little distance – to take on board that a story we’re been invited to chuckle at is in fact profoundly awful, that a laughter-filled account of a given event deserves extreme compassion and that our genial clown is in fact a frightened and sad little or boy girl who has never had the luxury of breaking into sobs.

It can be the greatest kindness to tell a funny friend that though we have the highest respect for their comic talents, we don’t necessarily always want to laugh – and that our predominant inclination might simply be to give them a hug and weep.

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