Intelligent Life asked seven writers for their answer to this question. Here’s Andrew Solomon’s.
The despair of comedians is a commonplace, but the lightness of tragedians gets less press. Many the great writer who has been more inclined to comedy than to tragedy in his later years. It may be that the exhaustion of living one’s later years contains tragedy enough, but it is also an acknowledgment that hilarity is the braver art. If you can see the humour in your own misfortunes, they are less unfortunate. The greatest pleasures of fathering include comforting a sad child and making them laugh; sometimes one does the first by way of the second, and sometimes vice-versa. Every parent and spouse knows that jubilation is a broad gateway to intimacy. Without humour, there would be only a mean resilience in many a marriage.
As the author of a book about depression, I’m often asked what got me through my worst periods of despair. The foremost answers are love and humour. One can cope with the darkest events by seeing their comical aspects, because what is funny cannot simultaneously be threatening; it is not coincidence that we denote flagrant disrespect with the word “laughable”. While anodyne laughter can mitigate calamity, mirth indulged for its own sake is precious even when it has no large enemy to face down. Sometimes, humour is used unkindly, and laughter expresses collective disparagement. Sometimes it can be deployed manipulatively; as a writer, and even more as a public speaker, I’ve discovered that it is much easier to make people cry after you’ve made them laugh.
I remember my father getting wildly angry when my mother was dying and I made a joke; he thought I was trivialising our shared suffering. I didn’t have the clarity to explain myself at the time, but I was trying to acknowledge the monumentality of what was happening to us, not to minimise it. We can meet a minor dismay with long faces, but catastrophe demands the uproarious to keep us going. Upon wit rests our sanity, in tough times or good ones.
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