The game of life
And going back
In the box
Only to find
The rules had been lost
Long a go
The game goes on
This short poem plays with the notion that life is a game. Of course, there are many different types of games, each with their own set of rules. Even if there is one monolithic set of rules that defines reality, it appears that there are countless games that can be played within that set of rules. A wise person realizes that each of these sets of rules, for whatever game chosen (or implied in one’s actions), possesses a certain arbitrariness. Such arbitrariness lacks a full claim in ultimate reality. Any such partial claim, when lifted to sacred status, deserves and invites mocking. Such playfulness and mocking delves into the wondrous paradox that irreverence can be the highest form of reverence in a given situation. Irreverence playfully invites us to a fuller and more sacred view of reality. And such playful invitations can harness the awesome character of pointing out high truths without the downer of overzealously demanding obedience. Such playful invitations abide by a sacred respect for higher truths as demanding obedience in and of themselves, without contrivance or brute force. In the games of life, there is often a negative connotation with playing in the sense of “games people play” — when we treat other players as objects in the game, not an equal or full players. I prefer a more positive connotation, as elucidated by Zen Buddhism’s nonseriousness, apparent foolishness under-girded by wisdom:
“There is a certain quality of foolishness in a real wise man. Why? Because a real wise man contains the opposite. He is both together. He is more comprehensive. A wise man who has no foolishness in him will be dry, dead. His juice will not be flowing. He will not be green. He will not be able to laugh; he will be serious; he will be a long face. A wise man who is just wise and in whose being the fool has not been integrated will be very heavy. It will be difficult to live with such a wise man. He will be very boring. He will be boring to you and he will be boring to himself. He will not have any fun; his life will not know any joy. He will be completely unacquainted with laughter. And when laughter is missed, much is missed.
The fool has something to contribute too — the laughter, the joy, the nonseriousness, the quality of fun, delight. The fool can dance, and the fool can dance for any reason whatsoever — any excuse will do. The fool can laugh. And the fool can laugh not only at others, he can laugh at himself.
When the wise man and the fool meet together in a consciousness, then something of tremendous value happens. There are foolish people and there are wise people. The fool is shallow; the wise man is serious. The fool does not know what truth is, and the wise man does not know what joy is. And a truth without joy is worse than a lie. And a joy without truth is not reliable. A joy without truth is momentary, cannot be of the eternal.”
Nonseriousness and humorlessness are linked to fundamentalist religious faith and militancy. Militancy — including militarism — and violence are anathema to good humor:
The overarching difference is between the mental rigidity of religious faith and the mental flexibility of humor.
1. The first contrast is between the respect for authority in religious faith, and the questioning of authority in humor. In faith-based religions, people believe what they are told, and do they do what they are told, by a leader, typically a patriarchal leader. God himself is pictured as the ultimate patriarchal authority, the Lord, the King of the Universe.
The psychology of humor, by contrast, involves questioning authority. The humorist’s role, from the court jesters of ancient China to today’s standup comedians, has been to think critically about people’s language, about their reasoning, about their actions, and about the relations between all three. From the days of ancient Greek comedy, the creators of humor have looked for discrepancies between what political and religious leaders say and what they do. Aristophanes poked fun not only at political leaders but at intellectual leaders like Socrates, and even at the gods.
2. The second contrast is between the simple, often dualistic, conceptual schemes of religious faith and the more complex conceptual schemes of humor. Faith-based religions offer believers simple concepts with which they can classify everything they experience. Master categories include “good and evil,” and “us and them.” Osama bin Laden’s speeches and George W. Bush’s speeches are full of name-calling based on such simple dualistic categories. As Bush has admitted, he “doesn’t do nuance.”
Comic thinking, on the other hand, is more complex and messy. The world doesn’t separate neatly into a few categories. In comedy, there aren’t any all-good people, nor any all-bad people. Even the best person involved in the best kind of action is likely to be tainted by some selfishness, foolishness, and maybe even hypocrisy. When characters appear in comedy promoting simple conceptual schemes, they are often satirized as fanatics or fools.
3. The third contrast is between the militarism of religious faith and the pacifism of humor. Religions based on faith tend to feel threatened by other world views and so tend to want to eliminate the proponents of those views. And so they often justify violence against “the heathen” or “the infidel,” as General Boykin and Osama bin Laden do.
From the beginning, however, comedy has been suspicious of calls to eliminate those who think differently, and has been suspicious of violence as a way to solve problems. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata satirized the insanity of the constant fighting between the Greek city states. In modern times, the futility of war has been the theme of dozens of comedies, which have lampooned the willingness to kill or die on command. Comic heroes are usually good at talking their way out of conflicts, and when that fails, they are not ashamed to run away. The comic attitude here is captured in the old Irish saying “You’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life.”
4. The fourth contrast is between the single-mindedness of religious faith and the willingness to change one’s mind in humor. The person of faith treats alternative viewpoints as possible sources of doubt, and so something to be suppressed. Once they make a divinely sanctioned choice of action—as in George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, they “stay the course” no matter what happens. They do not look for mistakes they might have made, they do not try to think of how they might proceed differently, and they tend to be defensive when they are challenged. Faith-based religions tout what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls “warrior virtues”: courage, loyalty, duty, honor, indomitable will, unquestioning obedience, stubborn determination, and uncompromising dedication.
In comedy, by contrast, the person who has an idée fixe is portrayed as foolish. Comic heroes do set courses of action, but they are adaptable after that. As situations change, they can too. Their plans are not set in stone but are contingent and reversible. Often, the comic hero has not even determined in advance what will count as success or failure.
5. The fifth contrast is between the idealism of religious faith and the pragmatism of humor. The rhetoric of faith-based religions is full of abstractions like Truth, Faith, and Freedom. On the enemy side are those who love Evil.
Comedy, on the other hand, is based not on abstractions but on concrete things, people, and situations. Comic heroes are concerned not about Truth and Freedom but about their next meal, and getting the one they love to love them in return. Not longing for some utopia, they are at home in the world as it is.
6. The sixth contrast is between the convergent thinking of faith-based religions and the divergent thinking of humor. Convergent thinking aims at reaching the correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct answer, but dozens, maybe hundreds of possible good answers. A standard exercise in divergent thinking is to think of thirty uses for a building brick.
With their simple conceptual schemes and their emphasis on thinking in traditional ways, faith-based religions do not encourage creativity or cleverness. A good example is George W. Bush and his wife Laura. On a TV interview program, Laura Bush was asked if she and the President had pet names for each other. She said, “Oh Yes.” “What is your pet name for him?” the interviewer asked. “Bushie,” she answered. “What is his pet name for you?” “Bushie,” she said again.
Unlike such unimaginative plodders, people with a rich sense of humor are creative. The master skill of the comedian is to look at something familiar in a new way.
7. The seventh contrast is between seriousness and playfulness. Faith-based religious visions of life are paradigms of seriousness, and humor is a paradigm of nonseriousness. It is persons, I take it, who are serious in the basic sense of the word. Issues and problems are called “serious” because they require persons to be serious about them. For us to be serious is to be solemn and given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. It is also for us to be sincere in what we say and do. We say only what we believe, and act only according to our real intentions.
Seriousness is contrasted with playfulness. When we are playful, we are not solemn and are not given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. We are not bound to sincerity in what we say and do. We may say something outlandishly false for the mental jolt it gives us and others. We may impersonate someone, or feign some emotion, just for the fun of it.”
I suspect that an accurate reading of reality would call out for more Irreverends than Reverends. Religion, institutionalized spirituality, must perpetually wrest with its own laughableness. For any institution branding itself with any given set of “authoritative” creeds, must be able to laugh at itself, and accept mocking in good humor, to even hope for greater authority — an authority forever lying outside any gaming. Yet, the show must go on!