The Threshold: Charlie Hebdo and Humor

“Without humor, we are all dead.”  So read the cartoon from the International New York Times in response to the killing of Charlie Hebdo by terrorists.

Humor is, all by itself, a kind of threshold.  When someone begins to tell a joke or a funny story, we are being invited to cross over a threshold.  It’s the threshold between linear life and nonlinear life.  Linear life is the kind of life where all the pieces add up and equal the expected sum.  2 + 2 = 4.  Linear life requires no risk at all.  Nonlinear life includes those situations where the outcome is more than the sum of the parts–and that’s hard to explain.  Nonlinear life always involves risk.  Charlie Hebdo knew that.

Somewhere in the first two years of my teaching career (25 years ago!) it occurred to me, one day, that the teacher and classes next door to mine were doing a lot of laughing.  That only made me realize that in my classroom, we didn’t laugh much at all.  In fact, we were very serious.  Very linear.  That kept me in control.  I was also very aware that  my students were not happy being in my room.   I began that day to open myself to humor in my classroom, to see the situations that had potential humor in them, to agree within myself to walk across the threshold of vulnerability to risk creating humor in those daily situations where I could.  To risk letting go of control.  In the 23 years since, I can confidently say that every risk at humor was worth it.  Humor softens us, opens us, and joins us in ways that don’t add up.  It is nonlinear connection that equals more than the sum of the parts.  When I cross the threshold of risking humor, some part of me that likes to be in control dies.  Another part of me that I was heretofore unaware of is born.

Humor is a threshold.  Where does it open to you, today?  Will you dare step over it and risk its treasures?

Bob Patrick


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