My late father, a survivor of Auschwitz, periodically told variations of the following joke when I was a kid:
“Did you know that Jews and bicyclists caused World War II?”
“Why the bicyclists?” I naively asked the first time.
“Why the Jews?”
After delivering the punchline, my dad chuckled. I either rolled my eyes, groaned or gave him a blank stare. He largely avoided discussing the Holocaust unless a joke was involved. He loved watching Hogan’s Heroes, where the Nazi guards are bumbling idiots, easily and frequently outwitted by a group of prisoners. I didn’t understand how he could laugh so easily at their antics. Nor did I appreciate that he always had a bad if not downright horrible pun at the ready, whether his audience (frequently me) wanted to hear it or not. When he came up with a new joke, or wanted to repeat one he’d learned, he picked up the telephone like an exuberant schoolboy so he could share it with his friends. They collected and exchanged punch lines the way other men might trade stock tips or golf pointers.
Many people who met my father thought of him as a funny man. He did have an instinct for the jocular and comedic timing, but I suspect his joke-telling helped him cope with the unspeakable pain of the loss of his family, culture and homeland, not to mention the atrocities he witnessed and suffered. Humor had been his lifeline after the Nazi nightmare, a lifeline that at times became a compulsive crutch. Still, even an excess of humor is preferable to grimness. The ability to find what is funny or absurd in a situation is a way of not allowing external events to completely influence or hijack one’s emotional life. Even a tiny chuckle can act as a breeze, lifting the sails of a heavy soul just enough to get it through the day or the next hour.
When I learned about the horrifying hate rally in Charlottesville, a gathering of angry, torch-bearing white men that resulted in many injuries and the loss of three lives, I tried to avert my customary deep dive into fear and dread. Luckily, someone on Facebook pointed out that the mob of Nazis had been carrying Tiki torches, disposable items available at Home Depot and Lowe’s for about four bucks apiece. These citronella-filled fixtures at back yard barbecues are often made overseas, not to mention that their name and design are borrowed from Polynesian culture. The Twitter-sphere quickly skewered and roasted the choice of torch. You’d think that a group of angry white dudes shouting, “We will not be replaced!” would have protested with durable rather than easily replaceable torches. Had they stayed on message, they would have carried torches manufactured in the USA, part of “making America great again”! Perhaps they could have handcrafted or whittled their own symbols of hate, much like their racist predecessors did before the big-box era. But it seems as if these troglodytes lacked the brawn and the brainpower to either make their own flame carriers or to recognize the incongruity if not outright idiocy of brandishing Tiki torches for their pathetic excuse of a cause, especially while wearing neatly fitting polo shirts, a sartorial symbol of privilege. Indeed, many of their hate-twisted and grimacing faces have been captured clearly on camera, allowing Yes, You’re Racist, a Twitter vigilante, to identify several of the participants by name and Twitter handle. One of these creeps has already lost his job.
While there is nothing funny about the hatred and divisiveness that the current president fomented during his campaign, hatred that is now on naked display, and violence in any form is appalling, I am not going to let this latest episode send life-shortening stress hormones through my body. I am going to honor my father, and his frequently exasperating jokes, by chuckling over the Tiki torches. Laughter is medicine. In the internal space freed by a glorious giggle, we can formulate a meaningful and productive response, rather than becoming triggered or, in the onslaught of terrible news, succumbing to numbing. Apparently the final Facebook post of Heather Heyer, the young woman murdered by the white supremacist who drove into a crowd, was: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” That is true. But if we’re not laughing, at least some of the time, we’ve lost ourselves and possibly a lot more.