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Why it helps to laugh – the subversive power of humorous humility

July 3 2018


It helps to laugh. Mike Pears reflects on the challenge of ‘uncomfortable truths’ and how comedians often provide an accessible way to explore difficult subjects and taboos.

As an avid listener of radio comedy, I seem to be hearing more comedians tackle difficult subjects and uncomfortable truths.

A few months ago I enjoyed listening to Daliso Chaponda’s Radio 4 comedy series ‘Citizen of Nowhere’ which explored Britain’s relationship with Africa. Chaponda is Malawian and in the show he relayed issues around his own identity and experience. It was approached through a striking story he told about his mother.

Chaponda’s story

In the radio show he relayed his own story: ‘My mother is a doctor and when she was working in Malawi at Queen Elizabeth hospital, one year a white Swedish doctor started working there. All the Malawian black patients would start to queue outside the Swedish doctor’s door and not want to see my mother. Ironically the Swedish doctor was unfamiliar with tropical diseases and often had to ask my mother for a consult.’ Chaponda’s radio story went on to describe how to him, it seemed that the group held a common sentiment that they couldn’t help themselves, and needed the ‘white’ charities to come and lend support.

This is of course completely unpalatable and untrue. But Chapanda’s humourous relaying of the story was touching on some unrealised biases human behaviour can display that he or his family experienced growing up. He has a genius way of relaying stories that he uses humour to touch on uncomfortable subjects in a way that opens up difficult issues that affect our lives. He – like other comedians – are able to use humour to push the boundaries of conversation by talking about the deep things of who they are. In doing so they are gently helping other people to understand what it is like living in their shoes. Or what it’s like to be on the receiving end of other people’s prejudices; are overlooked or treated as invisible. Much as Chaponda’s mother was.

Learning from comedy and how to talk about the difficult things

Perhaps comedians can give us some ideas about how to talk about things that are really important to us but which are difficult to say because of the risk of offending other people.

One of the things they are good at is spotting the important story behind the everyday situation or encounter. Just like the story of Chaponda’s mother, these incidents are not usually about big or dramatic events. In fact, they are often so simple that, like the queue outside the Swedish doctor’s door, they are the kind of thing we would just take for granted or not normally notice.

Another thing they manage to do is to tell their stories in a way that help people grow closer together. The prickly truths they often present could so easily cause others to feel bad about themselves but comedians have a knack of opening up a space that helps other people to see things from their point of view. And of course, this knack of opening up such non-offensive spaces for conversation must involve laughter.

Laughing Jesus – Comedy and parables

Perhaps Chaponda helps us to imagine what it must have been like to be in the group of people sitting around Jesus as he told parables. Surely there must have been a good deal of laughter as Jesus told stories which drew on cultural references that were part of his listeners’ every day surroundings.

Jesus’s stories so often got to the heart of the matter, and were a way of addressing difficult and unpalatable truths that needed to be heard and expressed. This notino of a ‘laughing Jesus’ might feel a bit uncomfortable because it cuts across the view that our faith needs to be ‘serious’. But it is helpful to understand that humour and humility often go together. Author David Augsburger writes in his book “Dissident Discipleship”, ‘humorous humility’ is at the heart of Christian spirituality.

Spotting our ‘every day’ stories and learning from them

So how might spotting our everyday stories and the deeper meaning help grow in our own faith journey?

  • Ask a friend to tell a story from their week and then take time to tell one of your own. What can you learn and observe?
  • Practice humorous humility: Value and encourage those in your community who make people laugh and find ways to helps the community to laugh at itself. The practice of humorous humility is an important route to not taking things too seriously.
  • Listen and learn from comedy: Comedians are often saying something about their own lives and experiences that we need to hear

Further thinking

Daliso Chaponda – visit his web site.

David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006. Read more.

Urban Life is a group of people working together to explore new approaches to mission and Christian presence among marginalised people and neighbourhoods across the UK. They work with groups, organisations and networks and focus on congregations and missional groups at the grass roots. They also work within denominational structures and with higher education providers. Read more.

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