“It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the power to choose either.”
“Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
Victor Frankl- Man’s Search for Meaning
One of my first assignments as a new therapist was to go out “into the community” to work, which I quickly found out was code for working with people who were a different color than me. Arriving at work my first day, I found that my task was to conduct an anger management seminar with recently released convicts who were living in a halfway house. My training lasted exactly one hour, and then it was my turn to talk to these guys about how to nurture their inner children. It was a terrifying ordeal.
I started out with the manual, which came complete with faces that identified different emotions. There was a smiley face for happy, a face with a single tear for sad, and so on. Looking around the room and seeing the stone cold faces, which included murderers, look at this handout in stunned silence was a troubling reality, and quickly I understood that this gig was going to require me to think much more quickly on my feet.
So I started with a story about me on a bike. In this story I was riding full speed on the sidewalk on the north side of Chicago, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a block of cement about 2 feet tall rose out of the sidewalk. It was too late for me to slow down, and as I careened into the cement, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes as I flipped over my handlebars. While I was in midair I spotted a little girl holding an ice cream cone standing with her mother. Quickly calculating the physics of the situation while I was in flight, I realized it was inevitable that I would in fact fly directly into them.
What happened next was where the line between comedy and tragedy got blurred. I crashed into the little girl and the ice cream cone went flying right out of her hand. As I lay there bleeding I spotted her out of the corner of my eye. Saw the single tear fall down her face and the sadness give way to anger as she sized up the situation.
What I didn’t see coming was what happened next. The little girl turned her angry eyes on me, and, like an angry bull, began her charge. She ran over to me and kicked me in the shin with all of the power her little legs could muster. It was so painful yet so comical I had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it.
So that was my story. I sat that for a moment in silence as they digested it, and then I saw a smile, followed by a chuckle, and soon everyone in the room was laughing heartily. It was a formula that had never failed me. Share my personal misfortune with others and watch the room go wild. In this case I wanted to make a point however, and thought about how I could use this moment of levity to at least begin a discussion about managing anger.
And it worked! By showing them I was also prone to losing my temper, stupidity, road rage, and all of the other pitfalls of modern living that they were, I had diffused the power dynamic in the room and we were able to start a real conversation about anger.
In getting to know the guys, I was continually amazed at how thoughtful and intelligent they were about talking about their own lives, and all of my preconceived notions about what a “convict” was supposed to act like soon went out the window. In learning about their lives, I found out that most of them had terrible family experiences as young kids, and how they often had to affiliate with gangs to find a sense of belonging. I heard stories about abuse, rape, violence, and even torture that sometimes made me sick to my stomach. It was difficult enough to get them to talk about these things, let alone incorporating a lesson about the healing power of laughter. A few weeks in, I had gotten them talking, but was far from converting any of these things into any meaningful life lessons.
So I decided to improvise. I brought in a copy of Man’s search for meaning, and we took turns reading passages from it. For those not familiar with the book, it’s about a doctor who loses absolutely everything while imprisoned in a concentration camp, including his business, his home, and his family, including his wife. The book is his account of how he was able to maintain hope and create meaning in the most horrific place imaginable. It had been a valuable part of my own development, and my wish was that some of these same lessons would resonate with the guys.
I was especially interested in Frankl’s descriptions of how laughter somehow persisted in the camps, which seemed almost unbelievable to comprehend. He described the desire to laugh as something that lies deep inside the human heart that nothing can touch or take way.
So as we read I asked the guys to tell me about how they were able to maintain their senses of humor while they were imprisoned. What followed were some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, and I learned that necessity was truly the mother of invention. While they were relating these stories I couldn’t help but think about the quote from Wayne Dyer at the beginning of this story about how laughter and anger are incompatible emotional states. The fact was that many of these men did have a great deal of anger, and in many cases the only way they had ever expressed this anger was through violence. Continuing to explore how to respond to emotional arousal with laughter instead of anger was a difficult lesson, and one I had certainly not mastered in my own life.
One of the tasks of my job was to help guide the guys through their transition back to work, back with their families, and in general back into society. Every week we would take a scenario and see if we could identify both an angry as well as a humorous response to the situation. Every week I would also bring my own scenarios in as well, most of which occurred while I navigated Chicago’s public transportation system, which was an area of my life where my own anger management skills were woefully lacking. As always, I continued to hold my own life up to public ridicule, which never failed to delight.
What I learned, and what I hoped the guys learned, was that one of the key lessons about managing anger could be realized by learning how to not take things personally, and understand, in real time, how to really process the idea of another person’s context. The fact is our emotions get aroused when others challenge us, threaten us, or even slightly disrespect us, but really it says much more about them than it does about us when they make this choice. This is a difficult concept to comprehend, particularly when your very life depends on your survival skills, and one of the key ideas we discussed was adapting from one context to another while continually working on not taking things personally.
This came up in their lives in a number of ways. Many of them worked in retail jobs, where impatient customers would disrespect them or otherwise address them without even basic courtesy. One question we tried to integrate into our class was asking, “what problem is the person trying to solve?” and then again trying to come up with answers that may provide alternate explanations for difficult behavior.
By the end of my year there, I realized I had not only been though a significant teaching experience, but also a wonderful learning experience. I saw men who had previously drawn guns at the slightest hint of agitation use humor to diffuse difficult situations. Saw quiet guys blossom into class clowns as they learned to write down and consider alternate choices in different scenarios in their lives. It was an incredibly gratifying experience, and one I will truly never forget, as it taught me that anyone could potentially learn to use laughter to cope with the difficult situations in their lives.
The impact of my time there didn’t really hit home with me till a couple of weeks ago when I was riding a bus downtown in a very agitated mood. A couple of people bumped into me, and I let out an audible sigh as each person encroached a little further into my space. A minute later I heard someone yell,
“Hey doc!” I heard as I looked around and saw Brian, one of my prize pupils from my time as the anger management instructor.
“Yea?” I responded.
“What problem are you trying to solve,” he said as a huge smile broke across his face. And I had to laugh as well. The student had become the teacher, and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in time. I laughed about it the rest of the day, and now when I am experiencing transportation rage, I try and picture that smile and his words continue to ring in my ears, and I invariably begin to laugh. Physician heal thyself I think is the appropriate expression.