Pat was my best friend, at least he was until my sense of humor got in the way.
Pat and I played football together at BYU. He played offense; I played defense. But we became good friends anyway. We lifted weights together, played racquetball together, and ran together in the off-season.
When I first met Pat, I was a recent convert to the Church and he was a lazy life-long member. He went to church once in a while, but he really wasn’t active, at least not as active as I thought he should have been.
We always joked around a lot. He teased me about my skinny arms; I teased him about his pot belly. Any topic was fair game for our joking: the way we dressed, missed racquetball shots, blown plays on the football field. Most of the joking was pretty clever, and it helped pass the time we spent working to become better football players.
One day, as we were getting dressed, I started teasing Pat about being inactive.
“Let’s see, Pat,” I said, “this Sunday is even numbered. Does that mean you’ll go to church? Or do you only go on the odd-numbered days?” He didn’t answer, so I continued to razz him. “Or do you just go every other month?”
I laughed. He remained quiet.
During the car ride back to our apartments, I didn’t let up. My teasing continued nonstop, and he sat sullenly throughout the trip.
Finally, just before we pulled up to my apartment, Pat spoke up, only “spoke up” isn’t the right expression. “Yelled” is more accurate.
“Listen, Chris,” he said, barely controlling his anger, “don’t ever tease me about the Church. Never.” And with that, I got out of the car. He slammed the door closed and drove off. The next day, some of our mutual friends came to talk to me.
“Hey, Chris,” said one, “lay off teasing Pat about the Church. You really hurt his feelings yesterday. See, he’s trying to get active; he’s been working at it for a long time, and you just don’t understand.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that a guy so big, so strong, so good at handing out teasing and taking it, could ever have his feelings hurt. But he did. And worst of all, that incident ruined our friendship. Of course, I apologized to Pat immediately. I felt horrible about the whole thing—horrible that I had really wounded a good friend, and horrible that I had ruined a great friendship. Sure, we remained friends, but it was never the same again.
I couldn’t figure it out. I had always believed that I had a good sense of humor, but if I did have a good sense of humor, why did it bring on such bad consequences?
What I didn’t understand then was that cutting humor isn’t good humor. For most of my teenage life I had watched popular TV programs and listened to popular comedians. Most of their humor consisted of cuts or put-downs. I thought it was funny, as did most of my friends, and used it in my own life. But my experience with Pat taught me that there are some things you can never joke about.
A man I know was in a terrible car accident when he was a teenager. He was lucky to survive, and because of the wreck, had to undergo extensive plastic surgery on his face. After a year of operations, the work was finally done, and his life returned to normal.
When he went back to school, his friends immediately noticed that his nose didn’t look quite the same as it had before the accident. They promptly nicknamed him “rubbernose.”
“They called me rubbernose all the time,” he recalls, “just teasing of course. Naturally, I laughed right along with them, never complaining, never asking them to stop. But every time they called me that, it hurt. I’ve never forgotten it.”
You should never joke about someone’s appearance. All of us are pretty much stuck with the way we look. We have no control over the way we were born. No one purposely tries to be too skinny, fat, short, or tall. My nose is inherited from my ancestors, and no matter how much I may despise it, it doesn’t change. I can joke about my nose, how big and misshapen it is, but if someone else does, it bothers me, even though I probably won’t show it.
Many kids today talk about how they “roasted” someone—how they put them down or teased them in a cutting way. That kind of humor may be fun if you’re on the giving end, but how does it feel on the receiving end? There’s a saying, “If you didn’t mean it, you wouldn’t say it.” Even if you say things in jest, the people you say them to can still be hurt. It’s impossible to know what will hurt someone and what won’t. Even if you think you know better, as I did with Pat, you may be wrong.
So what is a good sense of humor? Recently, I’ve seen some excellent examples of a good sense of humor. A good sense of humor doesn’t put someone down; it lifts them up. In the October 1984 priesthood session of general conference, President Hinckley showed his sense of humor when he introduced Peter Vidmar and Dale Murphy. He quipped, “Now if we only had Miss America, Sharlene Wells, here … “His line didn’t belittle Sister Wells; it was a compliment to her success and at the same time added some humor to the meeting.
Another good example was shown by President Ronald Reagan when he was shot several years ago. The President, a Republican, showed his ability to laugh even in the most difficult of situations when, as he was wheeled into emergency surgery, he said to the surgeons about to operate on him, “Gee, I hope you guys are Republicans.” A good sense of humor helps to ease painful or difficult situations, puts others at ease, and is usually welcome anytime.
Another kind of humor uses self-deprecation. The storyteller laughs at himself and helps us laugh with him as he narrates some of the funny situations he’s experienced. When we hear these stories and laugh, we’re not laughing at the person; we’re laughing with him. Thus, we can enjoy the humor with the storyteller, not at his expense. It’s like the famous humorist Will Rogers said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” It’s easy to laugh at others, but it’s much healthier to laugh with them or at ourselves.
As you work to develop your own sense of humor, be careful not to fall into some typical negative patterns. I know one man who thinks he has a great sense of humor because he tells jokes all the time. But being a joker is not a requirement for having a sense of humor. Good humor focuses on situations or experiences, and finds the irony or incongruity in them. It doesn’t rely on canned jokes or stories.
Remember, too, that no matter what you see in the TV sit-coms and movies, put-down, cutting humor is not good humor. While it may be entertaining to watch, in real life, cutting humor and sarcasm are too unkind to be funny. They can only injure, never uplift.
But, after all, a good sense of humor is a useful quality to have. It will often help you to keep your sanity when life gets too serious or too difficult. If you remember to be honest, considerate, and kind in what you say to or about others, you’ll be on your way to developing a “good” sense of humor. And that’s something everyone can enjoy.