Nancy wasn’t feeling well. She was expecting a baby any day. She hadn’t taken the nap she needed—and neither had the two-year-old who clung to one hand while she tried to prepare dinner with the other. The last thing she needed was for John to come home from work smiling and wander by the stove to see what they were having for dinner. She lost control and snapped at him.
Her husband could have snapped back at her, or retreated to another room to wait out the storm. But he put his arm around her shoulders instead and whispered, “I’m sorry, honey. After I have this baby I’ll be a lot easier to live with.”
The result was a startled smile, then shared laughter. John hadn’t said so, but Nancy knew that he knew how she felt. And there were bonuses: a molehill was denied mountainhood, and a funny moment that could be recalled again and again had been added to their family humor storage. In fact, Nancy used the incident to perform her own mood miracle within a few days when an exasperated John showed her that a button was still missing from the shirt he wanted to wear. She smiled and whispered, “I’m sorry, Honey. After I have this baby, you’ll be a lot easier to live with.”
A sense of humor. What is it? A good disposition? An awareness of or an inclination toward what is funny? Humor eludes tidy definitions, but two things are certain: intelligence goes into its wise use, and most of us recognize it when we hear it or see it.
Humor can happen anywhere, but as a means of cheering up or calming down, it is most needed and perhaps most neglected within the family. Surely nothing is more ironic than a gloomy, irritable, sour-faced Latter-day Saint. Of course mortality is serious business. Rearing a family has enormous eternal consequences. All of us have days when “endure to the end” seems an especially perceptive or insensitive choice of words. Even good times hold their share of trivia, those unimportant things that shred the calm. How easy it is to become cross and settle uncomfortably into negative dispositions and bad tempers. Thus habits are born.
Do you wear a perpetual frown? Do you insist that you were born without a sense of humor? Are you too busy to laugh? If you think you belong in any of these categories, please try the following exercise. Like an aerobic workout, it will be good for your heart. Read one step at a time. Do it. Then move on.
1. Make a list of five people you enjoy.
2. Cross off the names of everyone on the list who is a grouch.
3. Try to decide what characteristics the remaining five people have in common.
4. Now that you realize that all five people are good natured, ask yourself: If these five people each made a list of people they enjoy, would I be on it?
5. If the answer is yes, congratulations. You are not as humorless as you thought you were. If the answer is no, decide right now that you will improve your disposition. Go on to step six.
6. Practice smiling. Just for fun, set a portable timer to go off every ten minutes. Carry it around with you and when it goes off evaluate your expression. You won’t need a mirror. Relax. Now smile. The physical act of putting your face into that formation has the amazing power to send cheerful messages clear to the bone. Practice keeping your expression loose and agreeable. Take your time mastering this step but don’t give up.
As soon as you feel comfortable smiling and are enjoying the cheerfulness that follows, you will be ready to consider ways of using humor to help soften the abrasive moments in your home. Don’t be surprised if miracles occur in you and in the attitudes of those you love most.
A sense of humor is not simply a gift bestowed on a few. Most of us know someone with a delightful, never-failing wit woven into his personality. Such people may have a headstart, but they certainly do not have a monopoly.
The following examples might help you create ideas for humor in your family, or at least the incentive to move toward the light of a smile.
Dessert for home evening was carbonated pop. Two-year-old Jeannie had never tasted it, but what child would refuse a treat? She took one big swallow, blinked, gasped, puckered, and shook her head to get the bubbles out. Then she said, “It’s good for you, huh!”
That little episode became a permanent part of one family’s humor storage. When Dad comes in from jogging with perspiration rolling into his eyes and down his cheeks, or when Julie groans under the fumes from a home permanent, someone is almost always nearby to offer sympathy: “It’s good for you, huh!” Back comes the whole original scene—the home evening, the taste of carbonated pop, the laughter, and innocent, little Jeannie philosophizing about pain. The present trial is reduced in size, and family closeness is increased as members remember together.
The mission experience of a father rescued another family from many a grumble. He and his companion had boarded with a frugal woman whose meals never quite equaled the elders’ appetites. If there was soup, they swallowed every drop. If there was bread, they ate it to the last crumb. They always left the table hungry, but not until their landlady had gazed at the empty dishes and sighed proudly, “Well, I guessed just right again.”
It is not difficult to know when this man’s family draws such a priceless item from their humor storage. Whenever the casserole runs out or there isn’t enough dessert for seconds, someone is sure to say, “Well, Mom, you guessed just right again.” Disappointment does not become anger, and there is no quarreling over portions. When Mother uses the story herself—“Well, I guessed just right again!”—it is her way of saying she’s sorry. And who could be perturbed at a mother like that?
A family’s humor storage is a delightful tool for creating humor in the home. The goal is not levity or loud laughter but sanity and appropriate fun. Humor is especially valuable whenever the minutiae of daily life threaten the harmony that should be present. Too often we apply tourniquets to these annoyances when a band-aid of humor would do.
Consider the tactic of a neighbor. Children older or younger than hers could even be soothed and comforted by her witty solution to a recurring problem. Almost daily she hurries to a kitchen cupboard, opens it, and begins an earnest discussion with the spices, baking powder, and shortening. If she had a rope, she would be at the end of it. The table is still strewn with breakfast dishes, five rooms still sag from the morning flurry of getting youngsters off to school, and now the four-year-old at her elbow is insisting with wails, pulling on her complete attention. Once again, his attitude has exceeded her patience.
That is why she asks the invisible counselor in her cupboard, whom she calls Dr. Jensen, what to do. She tells him about the problem she and her son are having and asks for professional advice. The discussion is lively as she pauses for answers, nods or shakes her head, and shows her pleasure. By the time she has said thank you and shut the door in Dr. Jensen’s face, the child has usually forgotten his grief because he is marveling at his mother’s eyesight. She, meanwhile, has gone the ten count without losing the battle. The home atmosphere has gone from sour to sweet, from tense to loose.
This moment of humor created by a wise mother not quite at her wit’s end, since her wit saves her, gives her more time to think and also distracts the child. And it is fun.
Another approach to humor in the family is the creative use of words and comics. For example, using a big or unfamiliar word is an effective way of startling a child out of or into a particular frame of mind. Sid is used to his mother’s methods, but they still work. One afternoon he came in from school frowning and muttering. His mother, not smiling lest he think her heartless, asked, “Why so taciturn?” A curious, surprised look came onto Sid’s face and his expression softened to neutral. This time he headed for the dictionary where he saw his attitude described in print—by someone other than his parents. Mother’s simple tactic had given both of them that great advantage in dispelling tension—time.
It’s fun to keep synonyms handy. Did you know that you needn’t feel anger? You can feel ire, indignation, petulance, or umbrage. And by the way, a child whose voice volume keeps you on edge is also clamorous, stentorian, or vociferous.
For the second day in a row Jeff forgot to put the boxes in the attic. As usual, he also left his soiled socks on the bathroom floor. His mother could have called him lazy, absentminded, or sloppy, thus inviting a defense in kind, but instead she asked with a smile (which she had practiced) if he were an amnesiac. When she suggested, still smiling, that sometimes his personal neatness was slap-dash or his morning ritual slovenly, how could he become upset? By the time he looked up the words or pried their meanings out of his mother, he had mellowed, and he had gotten the message. Mom’s route through humor had conveyed also that his amnesia and slovenliness were not a grave matter, although he still must move the boxes and deposit his socks in the hamper. There had been no scene. Mother had not succumbed to the constant temptation to treat a minor bruise with a body cast.
This tool of language can be used other ways. Did your teenage daughter seem blue this morning? Put a riddle in her geometry book: “What did the elephant say to the porcupine?” (Answer: “Please stick to the point!) It is a time capsule, dispensing cheer throughout the day, and you don’t even have to be there. Or slip a note in her lunch sack with the fifth tuna sandwich this week, “Thinking of the fish’s point of view might make your tuna sandwich less tiresome.”
Funny notes on bedroom doors are always better than cross words: “Dear occupant. Norris Trash Service will be by at 7 in the morning with two trucks.” Instead of inviting or allowing tempers to flare, let a note put time and space between you and your child.
Scissors put to newspapers and magazines are also helpful in cutting out hurts or bad feelings and replacing them with humor. Our family members have a habit of seeing each other in cartoons and comic strips—kindly ones, of course—and all have had a turn at finding one labeled and placed in a drawer, a school book, or a pocket.
A cartoon on our refrigerator door shows four feet protruding from beneath an automobile. Two are in high heels and two are in long, dirty sneakers. The caption reads: “I’d rather do it myself, Mother.” Who put the cartoon there? This time it was Mother. The message to her son? I understand. I know that I am too helpful at the wrong times.
Anton Rosicky, the old Czech farmer of Willa Cather’s short story Neighbor Rosicky, never laughed aloud or told a joke or even displayed a talent for witty remarks. Yet there was about him a resilience to life’s ups and downs that affected others for good. He told his sons he wouldn’t own land without at least a little clay in it. When he smiled, his eyes twinkled, sending messages of joy. When he told his wife Mary to quit yelling at him as if he were a hog in the garden, the reader knew that even his scolding held love and high regard.
Anton was a man who could not, would not, no matter what, take any given moment of life more seriously than it deserved. That is one secret of a happy life, and he knew it. When the hot July wind burned up his entire crop in one afternoon, he killed a chicken and informed the family that they were going to have a picnic. “We might as well enjoy what we got,” he explained. When he and Mary looked back on that disastrous year, they called it “the year we enjoyed ourselves.”
A sense of humor is Anton Rosicky’s capacity for enjoying life. It is the wit of the husband we met earlier, sensing how to deal with the fatigue and tension of his expectant wife. It is the family humor storage, adroitly used, and the dictionary detours to find startling words, the scissor surgery that puts cartoons and comic strips where they will be found. It is pencil power, the substitution of notes for mere talking. And it is the psychologist in the cupboard, ever available, always free, who can capture the attention of a child and give a harried mother time.
Humor is a sensible, intelligent way to diminish tension and stop overrating the trivia of daily living. The family without it need not be, and the family with it is better fortified for tomorrow.