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  • Helen

It's Not Funny!

My grandmother was a great mimic. She and her children: my mother and her four sisters and two brothers were always laughing at the idiosyncrasies and funny behaviour in other people, in each other and, I think, it’s fair to say, sometimes in themselves! Growing up in the midst of that laughter is something I have always seen as a healthy legacy. Laughing privately at pompous people has sometimes stood me in good stead at times of pressure.

So much of the human behaviour on what Shakespeare calls ‘this great stage of fools’, can, if looked at in a certain light, be hilarious. And many comic writers are brilliant at spotting puffed up pretension and turning it into laughter which we can all enjoy. Much of the time quite innocently.

But laughter is not always entirely innocent! I discovered that recently when we were playing cards with my five-year old granddaughter. Half way through the game she began to bend the rules for her own benefit. Grandmothers, of course, are supposed to laugh indulgently at such infringements of the rules – and I did it, I thought, perfectly naturally.

But Kiki didn’t like it. ‘It’s not funny, Granny,’ she said. ‘It’s only a game,’ said one of the other adults.

Hmm...I thought. It is only a game and Kiki must learn to 'play' but it's not as simple as that! If you’re trying to keep your five-year old end up when you’re playing a game with several adults and you bend the rules, and one of the adults laughs at you, from your perspective, it probably isn’t very funny.

And then again, if you’re the granny and it’s been a long day of keeping abreast of your smart 5-year old granddaughter, you don’t feel particularly powerful at that moment. Most of us are only conscious of power discrepancies when we’re the ones without power. When we have power, we’re always less conscious of it.

So was it a misuse of my power to laugh at my granddaughter? Yep! Probably. Obviously in that situation both I and my laughter were more powerful than I realised!

That’s the thing with laughter – it can be a very powerful tool and a very destructive one, often both used and abused by people who don’t recognise their own power. And if you don’t feel particularly powerful in other areas of your life, you’re even more likely to forget it. My mum and her siblings would never have thought of themselves as being powerful!

They wouldn’t have thought about it at all because they belonged to a family where money was always in short supply, work not always a foregone conclusion, housing at the mercy of a powerful landlord who also may have had the ability to take away both their shelter and their work....Them powerful? That is a joke they certainly would have laughed at! For them, shared laughter was just a poor family’s entertainment!

But, these days, if our ears are open, we’ve come to understand as my granddaughter reminded me, that the possession of power is always a relative matter within any community, any relationship. In my lifetime we have all been made aware of the need to wield power gently, especially when the group is diverse in age or gender or race or any of the other parts of ourselves like training, wealth, education, experience that we tend to take for granted.

All of this doesn’t mean that we should stop laughing gently at the foibles and follies of our fellow human beings – most of all our own! But Kiki reminded me that maybe we all need a few more antennae to pick up humour and to ask who gets to make the jokes and who gets to laugh at whom about what!

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