Keeping Our Sense of Humour
"A well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life."
William Arthur Ward, 1921-1994, Motivational Author.
I was reminded recently that humour can be so very easily misunderstood, particularly on social media. That's so sad. Now, before you start thinking, "Hold on, you're supposed to be 'Mr Positive'. I don't need you to talk about sad stuff", this is going to get positive - I promise.
Our 'Great British sense of humour' is recognised, admired and yes, misunderstood the world over. It's seen us through hardship, war, famine, recession and disaster (natural and man-made) for centuries.
One of the most powerful examples I have come across was related to us at a meeting of our son's Cub Scout Pack some years ago.
It was November, and as part of the lead up to Remembrance Sunday, one of the leaders invited her father to talk to the Cubs. As one of the leaders, I was able to sit in on the time they shared together. Now an elderly man, he explained that he had served with the "Glorious Glosters" (The Gloucestershire Regiment). As a young man, and a regular soldier, he was thrown into the heat of the Korean War and all of the horrors that war is. Unfortunately (or fortuitously) he was captured by the enemy and incarcerated in a Prisoner of War Camp. We all sat, glued to his every word, open mouthed, as he described the horrific conditions in which he and his colleagues had been incarcerated. Treatment was harsh, food was scarce, disease was rife and both abuse and torture were liberally used on a daily basis.
One of the boys put his hand up to ask a question.
"How did you get through all of that?" he asked.
"Oh, it was hard" came the reply, "but our captors made it much easier for us - by mistake." The wonderful old man gave a cheeky smile and a wink. We just had to know.
"How?" asked the same lad.
"Well," said the old soldier, clearly sitting straighter on his chair, "they forgot that we were British. You see our culture and theirs was very different. We had a sense of humour that they didn't understand. As a result of that, one of the tortures they used against us, worked more against them, but they didn't know it"
He went on to explain that every day, he and his fellow Glosters were marched into the central parade square of the camp and forced to sit in a huge circle, all facing into the centre. As an individual, they could see everyone else and everyone could see them. At gunpoint, they were then made to stand up, one at a time, and shame themselves in front of their compatriots. They had to say negative things about themselves, such as
"I'm a terrible soldier"
They had no choice, they had to do it at the risk of being shot by their overseers if they refused. The man smiled.
We had to do it, so we did it, just as we were told - but we did it so much better than they thought we would.
"I'm such a bad soldier" they would say. "I'm so bad that whilst my friends are still fighting, I'm living, free of charge, in this five star hotel, eating three provided meals a day and I even have a wake up call without requesting it"
"I'm such a failure, I'd escape, but my map reading skills would probably bring me back to the Guardroom before the Guards had time to miss me"
The circle would explode in laughter. Each soldier took turns to stand up and literally do his "stand up" humour - about himself, his regiment, his country and their customs and their situation.
Their Korean captors believed the torture to be unbearable. Their own culture deemed self criticism and the mockery by and of their peers as being intolerable. The thought of having to face such a demeaning experience themselves caused them to believe that their prisoners morale and spirits were being eroded faster than those of someone looking for the exit in Ikea.
Of course, the opposite was true. The opportunity to laugh at themselves, their misfortune and their current predicament was fortifying every one of them. Far from being worn down, all of the soldiers looked forward to the 'awful' circle of shame, so much so that most of them spent the rest of the day planning their funny input for the next session. They had a endless source of material and a literally CAPTIVE audience!
As a result, they coped with whatever they had to get through, whilst their guards were left scratching their heads in wonderment at the amount of intolerable torture these men were able to withstand.
"If it wasn't for our ability to laugh at ourselves, I don't think any of us would have survived" he said.
Our course, we are not in the same circumstances as that wonderful old veteran. Thankfully, most of us will never have to endure what he and his friends did, but we can take his story as a fantastic example.
Things aren't always as we would want them to be. Sometimes things are tough. But if we keep our sense of humour, we afford ourselves a huge boost in our morale and resilience.
Our ability to laugh in the face of adversity and particularly at ourselves has been our saving grace throughout our history. Let's not loose it now.