In our individualistic culture, we’re often told there’s no point in doing something unless you enjoy it – an idea that never seemed to gain traction with my PE teachers. Another cultural trope is that having fun should be taken seriously, whether it’s appreciating satire as a form of social commentary or respecting the notion that humour can help both release and contain the emotional response to distress.

Upsetting events, especially ones that appear inexplicably random, can make us feel hostages to fate – a particularly uncomfortable feeling in a post-modernist world where, on the one hand, we are each made to feel responsible for forging our own destinies, yet on the other, as if we’ve never had less control over the outcomes of choice, be it voting, buying a house or arranging a holiday (Is the destination safe? Will a cloud of volcanic ash close the airport? What about the size of my carbon footprint? Etc, etc).

Choice can be oppressive.

Perhaps we’d all be happier if we never travelled further than our nearest village, declared all unmarried women living on their own to be witches and started wars with those ‘foreigners’ crowding our border three miles away… that’s a joke, by the way; the sort of joke I can only make because I’ve had access to education and all that comes with it – awareness of the Enlightenment and a self-regarding drollness I’d have less time or inclination to indulge if I was picking lettuces 15 hours a day or living in a refugee camp.

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Humour me

It’s also worth considering the serious side of humour in CWTP workshops. By ‘humour’, I don’t mean standup routines along the lines of ‘take my wife… somebody, take my wife!’ Such activities certainly have their place (Stand Up for Mental Health has done this brilliantly: visit, but in a workshop setting, I’ve increasingly deployed comedic ice breakers to bookend activities, opening and closing the session in a way intended to relax participants rather than tickle their funny bones. For example, introducing ourselves as wildly famous celebrities, using the third person, I wrote:

As one of the most popular hip hop artists of recent times, Gabrielle has outsold Nicky Minaj, won eight Grammys and collaborated on tracks with Pitbull, Richard Clayderman and Susan Boyle. Following an infamous Twitter spat with the Dalai Lama, Gabrielle has recently turned her attention to philanthropy, founding the charity Cats Have Feelings Too and writing the Tony-award-winning musical Paws The Music But Don’t Let It Stop, its opening night distinguished by a requirement that every audience member arrive carrying a pet cat…’

I could go on this vein, but in learning to pace activities (and when I say ‘learning,’ it’s an ongoing process), I have also found that less is more, particularly when it comes to hearing my own voice. Yes, sending myself up may prompt others to share. But, as I’ve yet to run a workshop structured solely around humour, for now I regard it as one possible response to any suggested prompt. There is no impetus on anyone, myself included, to be self-consciously ‘funny’, and no reason to treat comedy as emotionally evasive.

For example, I was intrigued to read on social media about a family who penned a ‘warts and all’ tribute to their late mother containing such bon mots as:

‘She believed in overcooking everything until it chewed like rubber so you would never get sick because all germs would be nuked … The gravy was like paste and the turkey was hard and there was no juice in it.’

Everyone can relate to an obit that subverts a reverentially solemn format and takes the form more commonly found in a eulogy or wedding speech, creating an anecdotal snapshot of a person based on their idiosyncrasies and ‘realness’ rather than recalling how many films they directed, bridges they built or diseases they cured (without in any way diminishing such achievements).

In a workshop soon after, I suggested writing an obituary to a beloved pet, real or imagined, an idea I had previously considered but never used, reluctant to introduce death and its attendant emotions of loss, regret and awareness of absence. But I took a risk, because these emotions are important, and while some participants might use a ‘pet obituary’ to address a human loss at one remove, for others a mourned dog, cat, stick insect – even imaginary pet – may encapsulate their happiest memories and deepest grief, a sense of humour shading both. We are complex souls, that complexity mirrored in the act of writing itself, which is physically unchallenging for the able-bodied but mentally akin to preparing to bungee-jump.

Here is part of my ‘pet obituary’*, a lament for a notional pet spider revealing poignancy at the heart of absurdist humour:

‘Erasmus had a major influence on reducing institutionalised arachnophobia, becoming, albeit reluctantly, a spokespider for arachnid rights and a major supporter of web infrastructure projects across the floorboard.’

There’s a lot going on here that I’ve yet to tease out through further, reflective writing – because it’s ‘funny’ how much there is to say, once you start to say it creatively.

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* I have quoted my own words in this piece to avoid violating the confidentiality of others. My writing has no intrinsic superiority over theirs.

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