Effectively transformative humor, at its best, evokes a strong mixture of raucous laughter, anguished sobs of grief, and overwhelming outrage—something that has been on abundant display as we continue adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic and as we attempt, once again, to collaboratively address some of our most divisively tragic challenges. Humor can bring us much-needed relief when it inspires the (currently muted) sense of optimism some of my most cherished colleagues display during our “face to face” online conversations via Zoom and Google Meet and through their social media posts on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. It can also inspire us to positive action when the brutal, over-the-top dark nature of that humor inspires action through outrage in response to overwhelming challenges including systemic racism and police brutality directed at Americans, as we see through the work of satirists like Roy Zimmerman, Shirley Serban, and Don Caron.
At a personal level, I’m deeply moved and at the same time frustrated by posts along the lines of what I have been seeing from one particularly cherished friend and colleague. He’s a bright, intelligent, very funny, very upbeat, very compassionate friend. His posts, focusing on what he refers to as “good news” during a time of pandemic, are wonderfully inspirational, provide much-needed humor, and remind me why I have considered him a cherished friend and associate over a very long period of time—a combination of relationships I very much look forward to continuing for as many more years as we have left to us.
My own mood, in contrast, has fluctuated wildly during this entire period of sheltering in place while maintaining strong social interactions and attempting to foster positive responses to all that we are facing. I try to maintain and inspire a sense of optimism and a commitment to fostering positive action in very small and very large ways in tragically discouraging and divisive times.
Humor as a catalyst to positive change is often at the heart of what my friend/colleague, many other friends and colleagues, and I attempt to promote at a time when I am relearning that humor comes in all sorts of sizes and shapes. There is the wonderfully optimistic spin my friend consistently manages to give to what he sees and hears. There is also the deeply poignant, sometimes bittersweet, and sometimes just kick-them-in-the-gut humor/satire that inspires that raucous laughter, those anguished sobs, and that sense of outreach I mentioned earlier—which is why I decided to write a version of this article to my friend earlier today and then expand it into this invitation to join the conversation and seek ways to reshape our world in a way that makes it more compassionate and more responsive to the pain, suffering, and inequality that many members of our communities continue to feel.
I wrote—and am writing—very much in the moment, with his two most recent posts in mind. But. With. The. Sense. That. This. Captures. Much. Of. The. Wonderful. Work. I. Have. Seen. From. Him. Over. The. Past. Couple. Of. Months. I’m seeing celebrations of what may be coming down the pike—mostly celebrations of what others are doing (e.g., working on vaccines) while we wait around (without doing something as simple as wearing a mask) and hope for the best. I’m also seeing some important much-needed call-outs against those who seem to want only to focus on bad news without acknowledging what very much is worth celebrating. What I’m not seeing—perhaps because I’m not paying close enough attention and perhaps because it’s not yet there—is a celebration of positive actions taken by the unsung heroes. Those who understand that wearing a mask and engaging in social distancing are ways of protecting others as much, if not more than, they are ways of protecting themselves/ourselves. Those who from positions of leadership encourage positive, collaborative, sometimes unpopular actions to attempt to address the challenges we face rather than placing individual liberty and rights above the equally strong needs of the community and holding (thankfully underattended) political rallies that encourage people to celebrate their unwillingness to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
He accurately and justifiably points out that there are places in the U.S. where the spread of COVID-19 is not devastating communities. “It’s not, by the way, what the media would have you believe that it is,” he says in his latest post. “The cases are rising in a few states and that is painting a distorted picture of what’s happening nationally…Despite the fear-mongering that you’re hearing right now about the cases exploding…what we’re seeing is the death rate continuing to decline…the actual fatalities continue to decline…”
Looking at COVIDLY as a reliable tracking site for COVID-19 cases and deaths, on the other hand, reminds us that Australia had no reported deaths in the past 24 hours (midday, June 26-27, 2020)—a period of time when the United States had 834 deaths reported as directly related to COVID-19. Looking at the latest reports from The New York Times on June 27, 2020, furthermore, shows us that more than half the states in our country reported increases in cases and that, overall, ‘[m]ore than 2,509,400 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 125,300 have died.”
This hit home for me again late this week as I was in face-to-face-online meetings via Zoom with colleagues in Australia—where preventative actions have led them to halt the spread of the coronavirus much more effectively than we have so they can already be working on building a new and better normal. We might have been in a position to be doing this now if we had more aggressively taken the sort of individual actions they took rather than waiting for someone else to develop a vaccine—which, of course, doesn’t have to be an either-or choice! We can hope for development of effective treatments and vaccines while, at the same time, actively promoting and taking individual and collective action to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 now. We can, while celebrating the numerous calls to action in response to the displays of racism and the almost daily documented reports of police brutality directed at Americans, also be doing things small and large in our own lives to build the foundations for a new and better normal in our country.
This is one of our challenges: to find whatever common ground we share. To produce and benefit from humor/satire that produces laughter, grief, and outrage. And to work toward creating a time when our laughter celebrates our small-scale foibles with far less need for evoking grief and outrage.
–N.B.: This is the thirteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and to our continuing interactions online.