My son called me last week to let me know he was on a bike ride. I asked where he was going. “To hunt zombies,” he said. “Oh honey,” I answered, “they don’t even come out until night. And you have to know where they gather or you won’t find any. What kind of weaponry do you have?” “Just a knife.” “Son, that’s not adequate. Come on home and get better armed.”
Or there was the time the same son asked me how we get boneless chicken. I answered without the slightest pause. “You know about those special eggs, right? The ones for boneless chickens? Very rare. It’s actually a mercy to eat the chickens. They don’t live long because of of the bone problem. No real structure to them. But the meat is really tender.”
It’s fairly common for me to come up with an absurdity and deliver it with a straight face. My family is used to it. But my son told me I ought to be careful, because I could hurt someone’s feelings. He reminded me of a time I had complained about Arnold Schwarzenegger insisting on changing the spelling of California to CalifOHnia. Some guests were with us. One of them asked, “Seriously?” I admitted that I was joking. My son told me that everyone else laughed–except for the person who had been taken in. “I think you made her feel stupid,” he said. I had to think hard about that. I thought even harder about my habit of dry-wit responses when I said something quite serious to a friend and she answered, “I don’t know. I’m never sure if I can believe you.” She was a former student who was taken in when I opened class by saying, “The administration has asked that we have a Jimmer Fredette moment before we start class. Anyone have some thoughts about Jimmer and how he has affected your life?” I don’t want my style of humor to make anyone feel they can’t trust me.
The issue isn’t really humor; I’ll still engage in this sort of banter with my family and probably elsewhere. The issue is when our humor makes someone else feel foolish. I don’t want to do that. Stephen Colbert was asked if he used his particular style of wit at home. He said that he didn’t. “I don’t want to tell my children that I love them and have them answer, ‘Good one, Dad. Very dry.’”
Word play and humor are aspects of my fiction-writerly imagination. I will use them as I write. But I hope to never use my writing to hurt someone or to make false accusations–an important hope during this political season when much of the commentary aims for the juggular. I’m not talking about Colbert and Stewart, but those politicos who use hyperbole as a dagger. Most of us have seen our friends fall into divisive language in support of a candidate, and swipe a broad brush over any who won’t be voting for their guy. I disengage from those conversations quickly. I never respond to political comments on Facebook, nor do I post my political views in the public spaces. I know the circles where I can talk politics safely and courteously.
My family knows my serious side–which represents most of my identity–well. Others may not, and so I am called to be a little careful in the ways I joke around them. I am called to be my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, and to speak charitably around them, which often means that I resist the one-liners.
I recently closed down a conversation on a big blog because one of the commenters went way over the line. He made an accusation which had absolutely no basis, and in fact was completely counter to everything I stand for. As I defended myself, the commenter revealed that he knew the accusation was false, but he was just making a point.
That’s when I started thinking about guile. When does our humor enter the realm of guile? Guile: Craft; cunning; artifice; duplicity; deceit; usually in a bad sense.
As a fiction writer (yes, I still am, and will be returning to a novel very soon), I certainly engage in telling lies. But, as I tell my students, “We tell lies to get at the truth.” I take my fiction seriously. I can honestly say that I write fiction without guile–ironic as that may sound. But surely fiction or books pretending to be factual but which are in fact fiction (Protocols of the Elders of Israel) can do unthinkable damage, and we must be duly warned. The best fiction will be redemptive. For me, at least. I hope to finish the last page and feel that I have new understanding of relationships, the human heart, grace. Right now, Marilynne Robinson is the author who accomplishes that for me, and I’m using her as my mentor. I will shift mentors eventually, but her images and words linger with me and even bring me peace.
I have told my children when they were making fun of someone, “Never take joy at the expense of someone else’s dignity.” That might be the best guide. And none of wants to assume Lucifer’s title of “The Accuser.”
May my lips never speak guile. But, dear Lord, thank you for the gift of humor. Grant me the wisdom to use it well.