She was a retired woman, a bit hard of hearing but quite pleasant. I saw her Monday afternoons, and she always opened our session by asking me about my weekend. One particular day, I answered this way:
“Oh, we went to a tapas place.”
“A topless place! “
She shrieked the words, almost hysterical.
Well, eventually, I was able to calm her down. I repeated the problematic word and described the Spanish-style restaurant I’d referred to, not a burlesque show.
Did she ever look at me as she did before the misunderstanding? I sure hope so!
Another question: Is an occasional intentionally humorous quip from your counselor a good idea? What guidance might indicate when and how to use this form of conversation? Not everyone can or should.
Many therapists are serious, reserved, or seriously reserved. They view a “therapeutic distance” as if it is an ethical necessity accompanied by a subtle chill. Others never dismount their professional or “doctor” pedestal.
For those who use a strictly Freudian model, the patient is on a couch from which he cannot see the analyst. Without seeing him, the listener might miss or misinterpret the healer’s clever intent. Since the psychiatrist also remains quietly listening much of the time, he is a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a dignified magician behind a metaphorical screen.
I laughed a lot in my practice, as I hope my writing reveals. While I agree with the need to retain an element of professional detachment for everyone’s sake, I also know humanizing yourself has a place on flat ground. At times, bringing a smile salves a broken heart.
A practitioner’s infrequent levity can lighten the mood. If the client is weeping or relating something uncomfortable is not the moment to attempt this, but some others are.
To insert a giggle, you need to “read” the patient’s emotions and share a comfortable relationship. Thus, the healer must know the sufferer enough to understand when humor will work.
A chuckle should never come at the patient’s expense. Minimizing suffering while it is fresh is also to be avoided.
Making someone laugh is a gift. What’s more, I doubt whether anyone can be instructed in this talent. You have the knack, or you don’t.
My personal physician has it. Years ago, I went to JN with a skin complaint, and he referred me to a dermatologist. The specialist inspected my face and asserted I’d get skin cancer within 10 years.
No hesitation, no other possibilities, no doubts.
Not great news, either.
When I returned to my general practitioner, I reported what the man said. My doc responded, “Did he tell you the date?”
I broke up. My internist lightened my worry with those six words. The other guy was wrong, by the way.
Comedians describe comedy as “tragedy plus time.” They recognize many overwhelming wounds fade, to be laughed about later, sometimes much later if at all.
Well used, mirth permits people to recognize they remain capable of joy, even if for a second. Future happiness might therefore appear possible despite their current circumstances. When that awareness comes with the right touch of lightheartedness, it needn’t always be explained.
Not every unhappiness benefits from this remedy, but it sometimes opens the possibility of a new attitude toward our passage through life.
Jollity introduces the unspoken awareness that life is full of laughable indignities, near misses, and inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. We ruin our lives by making each one unforgettable and indelible, like covering every inch of ourselves with large and small frowning tattoos, all staring back at us.
We are such frail things at times. Comfort comes from knowing others are in the same club and just as vulnerable. By recognizing the absurdities of existence we fortify ourselves for the uncertain days ahead.
The human form is like a tiny spaceship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are dark surprises. Brighter and better ones include a moonlit night with someone you love.
Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allows relief from a dim view of what lies ahead. We even may learn how to prepare for challenging events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.
Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as heroic accomplishments and the offspring who will speed our genes forward in their own spacecraft.
Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?
The single-cell cartoon is Doctor Visit. Author and source unknown. Next comes Spirit of Civilization from Puck magazine, June 17, 1903, housed in the Library of Congress. Finally, Amazing Laughter, photographed by BMK in the Sculpture Park of Vancouver, Canada. It is the work of Yue Minjun. The last two of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.