A couple of weeks ago I went to see the German film Toni Erdmann. It runs for two hours and 42 minutes and as a foreign language movie, billed as a comedy, I wondered beforehand if it might end up feeling like a long watch. But it had good reviews and I was keen to see it.
Toni Erdmann and the role of humour
I’m very glad I did. It has stayed with me since, for all the right reasons. It was funny, tender, ridiculous, moving. I was reminded of the potency and importance of humour, how it can be used so effectively in unexpected ways, and this has all kept popping up in mind over the days.
The storyline was far-fetched: “A practical joking father tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter by creating an outrageous alter ego and posing as her CEO’s life coach” (IMDb). But regardless of the likelihood of this particular scenario, the main premise that was so brilliantly portrayed was the role of playfulness to lighten a situation and also to expose a situation. I was struck by how much resonance this has for our current everyday lives, blighted as they are with the Trumpian effect, endless war and the very sorry state of the environment.
A moment of shared fun on a windy day
I was talking with a woman at work on Friday who described an unexpected comedic scene in relation to Storm Doris which had swept across the country the day before. She described how she’d been queuing with a line of people at a bus stop when, for a few minutes, the high winds had dropped. Everyone was standing there together, yet disconnected from each other, lost in their individual worlds as we often are. As the bus drew up the gale started blowing again. So as everyone was trying to board there was a moment when the wind was pushing everyone away from the bus just when they were all trying to get on it.
It was an unexpected moment of perfect, wonderful silliness: the wind shoving one way, the people another. The would-be passengers responded by catching each others’ eye, smiling, joking and generally sharing the experience with humour. Once on the bus, people carried on talking to each other about the small but fun incident. A connection had been made.
Deep Ecology and the need to reconnect
I recently read an article in Truthout by Dahr Jamail in which he interviews the deep ecologist, Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy about the ever more grave condition of our planet, the rise of Trump and how all this is related to the ‘fragmentation of the public mind’. This state of affairs is described as being brought about partly through the erosion of good quality state education since the era of Reagan (and therefore, I would say, Thatcher here in the UK).
Jamail is a journalist who found his way to one of Macy’s Work That Reconnects workshops in 2006 after serving on the front lines in Iraq. Macy’s work focusses on the need for re-connection: she draws on and teaches methods from systems theory as well as spiritual teachings to help “overcome the fragmenting of our culture through the hyper-individualism”.
In the interview she talks in terms that recall to me Pankaj Mishra‘s words in his recent discussion at the LSE and that I wrote about here. She responds to Jamail saying how each one of us can and must find our own way to wake up to what is happening around us; that if Clinton had won the US election it would have been easier to stay asleep. But she makes it clear that waking up – really seeing and feeling and facing what is going on – is painful, hard work that needs to be done in company with others, in connection with others. This is where and how we can find the support to stay present with today’s jagged reality:
“It’s hard to wake up alone now. It’s scary to see even what is going on. But there is almost no limit, I’ve come to believe, to what we can do with the love and support of each other. There is almost no limit to what we can do for the sake of each other”.
Resisting creatively, resisting with humour
I wrote in Help Through Haikus about how inspiring I’ve been finding the many recent creative acts of resistance. These bring about connection, just as humour does too. We need to make room for these creative acts, for these fun moments, and revel in them when they happen as part of a planned event – such as last week at Medical Aid for Palestine’s (MAP) comedy fundraiser in London – or when they bubble up spontaneously.
To borrow some of Macy’s words towards the end of her interview with Jamail, let’s not get too solemn, let’s not spend all our time gritting our teeth. Let’s laugh out loud. Let’s enjoy a kind of wild joy, whether at the cinema or at home, whether at work or in the street, whether the wind is blowing or not.