We know that humor is a paramount way of putting distance
between something and oneself. One might say as well,
that humor helps man rise above his own predicament
by allowing him to look at himself in a more detached way . [ 1 ]
The ad in a London newspaper read Unemployed. Brilliant mind offers its services completely free; the survival of the body must be provided for by adequate salary. Viktor Frankl quoted this ad in his book The Doctor and the Soul to make an important point about the different ways that people may respond to being unemployed. To be sure, Frankl was not in any way suggesting that unemployment is not a serious matter; on the contrary, he emphasizes that being unemployed is a tragedy because a job is the only source of livelihood for most people. By the same token, this newspaper ad reflects the fact that not all unemployed people experience an inner emptiness due to being unoccupied or to feelings that they must be useless.
First of all, the fact that we do not have work in the form of a paid job does not mean that life itself has no meaning for us. Second, our attitude toward any situation, including unemployment and other major life challenges, frames our ability and willingness to respond in a responsible manner. As you can see, the person who placed the ad in the London newspaper turned a dire situation into something humorous because she was able to put some distance between herself and the issue at hand. She was able to look at herself from a distance as well, which, among other things, allowed her to find meaning in her plight and take appropriate action to remedy her situation. Indeed, even the text of the newspaper ad reflects both her sense of humor and her innate, distinctly human, capacity to look at herself in a detached way and rise above her predicament.
If there s one thing I wished I d learned to do at a ripe young age, it s to laugh at myself more easily and more often. Growing up, I was a very serious person; uptight you might even say. Having a sense of humor, in my early experience, was more likely to get me in trouble ”at home, in school, and at work ”than it was to help me deal with life s transitions. I didn t learn to fully appreciate my sense of humor until much later in life, but it surely came in handy for me, especially during difficult times, after I found out how to use it effectively.
It might seem contradictory to write about humor in a book about meaning. Frankl believed that, if there is one trait that distinguishes our humanness, it s our sense of humor. (We all know dogs who smile ”but they don t burst out laughing, especially at themselves , when they forget for the umpteenth time where they buried their latest bone!) Humor about ourselves represents the essence of self-detachment, especially when the joke is on us. It tells us, and anyone within earshot, that we aren t taking ourselves so terribly seriously ”and isn t that a relief. Our human ability to laugh at ourselves takes the edge off every serious work situation; and every serious work situation deserves , and needs, a dose of humor. We not only show others that we don t sweat the small stuff but we also show ourselves that we re no exception to the principle of self-detachment.
The old joke goes: Who ever lifted their head off their deathbed to say ˜Gee, I wish I d gone to the office more often. ? To my knowledge, no one has ”so far any way. No matter how meaningful our work is, its meaning comes from our values, the deeper inclinations of our hearts and minds. Our jobs are part of our meaning; they represent our intentions to provide for our families, for ourselves, for our community, and for the world. They aren t who we are; they are what we do and how we do it. And when we can joke about what we do, in some way, we take seriously who we are.
An astonishing example of this is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. He has witnessed the most horrific genocide of his beloved people. Millions of Tibetans, including a large number of the spiritual community of Buddhist monks and nuns, have been tortured and murdered by the Chinese. Yet no one laughs louder at himself than the Dalai Lama. Nor do we often see happiness so gloriously displayed. He knows the tragedy of his time, yet he also knows happiness, humor, and lightheartedness.
In their book The Art of Happiness at Work, the Dalai Lama s co-author , Howard Cutler, makes the following observation about His Holiness:
At last things fell into place. I finally understood how the Dalai Lama could claim I do nothing, as his job description. Of course, I knew that with his lighthearted humor, there was a tongue-in-cheek element to this job description. And behind his joking about doing nothing, I knew of his natural reluctance, which I have observed on many occasions, to engage in unnecessary self-appraisal. This seemed to grow out of his lack of self-involvement, absence of self- absorption , and lack of concern for how others view his work, as long as he had sincere motivation to be of help to others. [ 2 ]
This is a great gift. And when we bring humor to our working world, it too is a gift. Humor is the great equalizer. It makes a CEO less intimidating and a cab driver more adorable, and the other way around. An adorable CEO can do more for morale than a big raise. A funny cab driver can lighten up an entire, responsibility-ridden day (if the driver gets you where you re going on time).
A sense of humor is usually accompanied by cheerfulness. This is another one of those misleading words. Most cheerful people I know have experienced real tragedy in their lives. When tragedy strikes, it takes us to the depths of our grief. Going through grief gets us to cheerfulness. When we know how bad it can be, we find out, as the actor Jack Nicholson would say, how good it can get.
Real cheerfulness is not have-a-nice-day artifice. It s a way of experiencing the present, no matter what the weight of the world or the weather. Cheerfulness celebrates the possibility of meaning around every corner. It buoys us up beyond our individual concerns and invites us and others around us to find something to be happy about. This doesn t mean we hide behind cheerfulness. We simply lighten up and laugh.
Indeed, a moment of humor at the right time can lift us out of our self-imposed misery faster than anything else. When we detach ourselves from ourselves and our situation, we don t diminish the circumstances, we go beyond them. We can see, feel, and appreciate ourselves as separate from the distress. We don t deny; we accept and rise above.
Let s consider some serious topics that have overshadowed corporate America over the last several years : accounting fraud, and the erosion of business ethics. What could possibly be humorous about the corporate crime wave and how could a light-hearted approach be used to possibly improve the situation in the years ahead?
Andy Borowitz, a stand-up comedian and author of the book Who Moved My Soap? The CEO s Guide to Surviving in Prison , offers such an approach ”one that balances laughter with serious introspection. Speaking at some of the premier business schools in America, Borowitz has shown that satire can be an effective, if offbeat, way to address the subject of CEO and corporate credibility. Getting business ethics into the open and addressing them humorously, in other words, can be therapeutic for both individual business leaders and their organizations. Moreover, Borowitz has already found that his brand of humor can be a useful tool for advancing business education, complementing traditional courses in business ethics. After his presentation at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania), for example, one second-year MBA student said To be able to laugh and find some humor will likely help move us forward. There is still a crisis in how people view corporate leaders . And an incoming MBA student astutely said It was so refreshing. There was an underlying lesson of ˜don t take yourself so seriously. [ 3]
People at work don t have to know a lot about the details of our lives; they just have to know a bit about the true meaning in our lives. When we are able to acknowledge our own meaning, we acknowledge the meaning in everyone else s life as well. Then we can detach ourselves from our difficulties, look at ourselves from a distance, and get on with the job, often with humor as our best friend.
In the world of work, emergency medical care workers have considerable experience with a particular kind of self-detachment. In order to be effective, they have to detach from the person whose life they are attempting to save, as well as be able to view themselves doing their lifesaving work in a detached way. Their jobs, by definition, are pressure-filled, stressful, and meaningful. Yet they have to detach themselves from self and the situation facing them ”often involving the life or death of the person in distress ”in order to do their work with meaning. When it comes to humor, on any given day a roomful of emergency responders are much funnier than a barrel of stockbrokers on a good day.
Self-detachment allows emergency workers to maintain emotional distance from their patients , so that they don t identify too closely with them during their critical time of need, observing themselves and their work from a distance, so that they may rise above and deal most effectively with the stresses of the moment.
In our post-9/11 country, communities nationwide are responsible for emergency planning for everything from fire and car accidents to bombs and bioterrorism . In one small county (in a Southwestern state) alone, dozens of people will show up at any given monthly meeting. The jobs represented include: police, fire department, emergency medical services, town, county, and state government, environmental groups, Red Cross, Ham Radio, health department, telephone and power companies. For two hours, they discuss the direst of emergency possibilities and how best to respond. There s a laugh a minute ”at themselves and one another ” along with the serious work that has to be done.
We never know what s really going on in people s personal lives. We do know that they include both challenges and rewards. Some co-workers may go home to isolation and loneliness, others to happy family life. All experience both the joy and grief that life has to offer; they struggle with making ends meet, with teenage kids, with little kids, with no kids , with babysitters, aging parents, car payments, healthcare expenses, and all the other demands of daily life. Every day, people around the world rise to the occasions in their life and go to work. They bring with them their entire lives, even as they focus on the work at hand.
Being able to detach ourselves from mistakes, our own and others, is another skill that s very useful at work. Nobody likes to make mistakes. When we can acknowledge our own mistakes, and laugh at them, it can be a huge relief for those around us. What are mistakes anyway, but lessons to learn from? [ 4] Who hasn t felt stupid at work, for some reason or another? It comes with the territory. It comes with life. We re only as good as our mistakes. But we have to acknowledge that we made them.
When someone comes to us at work and says I made a mistake, most of us feel empathy. It takes self-detachment to own up to a mistake. To look at yourself and say I goofed and then move on with your work and life. We are at once the person who doesn t want to make a mistake and the person who made a mistake. The person inside us who doesn t want to make a mistake is in the driver s seat nearly all the time. A mistake is momentary. When we dwell on our mistakes we give them far too much credit. When we acknowledge them and laugh them off, we reassure those around us that their mistakes, too, are momentary and not who they are. I m reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin trips, flips , and falls down, only to get up with arms outstretched and say, TA-DAAA!!!
Mistakes, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. The big ones might never be fuel for humor, but they are always life lessons. They teach us humility ; and eventually, deep down, they teach us meaning. They teach us that we are even more than our most terrible mistakes. If Viktor Frankl could find humor in the concentration camps, perhaps there s no situation imaginable that wouldn t somewhere, at some moment, lend itself to humor.
In his writing and lectures, Frankl described a kind of cabaret that, from time to time, was improvised in the concentration camp. And although this is very difficult to imagine, this form of camp entertainment included songs, poems, jokes, and even stand-up comedy (some with underlying satire regarding the camp) performed by anyone who wanted to. This activity was meaningful, in part, because it helped the prisoners forget their horrific situation, even for only a moment. Frankl reported , Generally speaking, any pursuit of art in camp was somewhat grotesque. But you might be even more astonished to learn that one could find a sense of humor there as well. Humor was another of the soul s weapons in the fight for self-preservation [emphasis added]. [ 5]
In fact, Frankl trained a friend to develop a sense of humor in one of the camps. He suggested to this friend that they promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, and it had to be about some incident that could happen after their liberation. One story involved a future dinner engagement, during which Frankl s friend would forget where he was when the soup was served , and beg the hostess to ladle it from the bottom. This request was significant for, in the camps, only thin watery soup was provided and servings from the bottom, which were extremely rare, meant that they included peas and therefore would be a special treat!
It s important to distinguish between self-detachment and denial. When we detach, we do so knowingly and with an orientation toward action. We understand our predicament and choose to behave in a way that supports our relationship with others. We might share our burden at work; we might not. But we know what it is and we know what we are doing. On the other hand, denial separates us from our experience and the benefits that can be derived from it. And, when we deny our own experience, we deny the experience of others. Denial leads to disconnection. Self-detachment, on the other hand, leads to connection, learning, and growth.
Frankl frequently employed the technique of self-detachment during his imprisonment in the concentration camps. Indeed, he often kept himself going by imagining himself as an observer rather than as a prisoner . Here s how he disclosed to one conference audience how he had used self-detachment for his own survival:
I repeatedly tried to distance myself from the misery that surrounded me by externalizing it. I remember marching one morning from the camp to the work site, hardly able to bear the hunger, the cold, and the pain of my frozen and festering feet, so swollen from hunger edema and squeezed into my shoes. My situation seemed bleak, even hopeless. Then I imagined that I stood at the lectern in a large, beautiful, warm and bright hall. I was about to give a lecture to an interested audience on, Psychotherapeutic Experiences in a Concentration Camp (the actual title that he later used at that conference). In the imaginary lecture I reported the things that I am now living through. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, at that moment I could not dare to hope that some day it would be my good fortune to actually give such a lecture . [ 6 ]
Being able to visualize and use your imagination effectively are two factors that directly support and influence the self-detachment principle. Experience has also shown that self-detachment can be facilitated by immersing yourself in a role (much like an actor) other than yourself. Hence, a useful exercise for practicing self-detachment involves creating a part for yourself in either the movie of your own life or some other movie production in which you must act out a key role.
For example, imagine that you are the principal character in the movie Defending Your Life. In Judgment City, they showed video clips of your life s moments of most fear. If you were in Judgment City, what fears would you be confronting and how would you deal with them? How would you justify or defend your actions in the past? It is important to note that your sense of responsibility for discovering personal meaning can be heightened by immersing yourself in such a fictional, yet still autobiographical, detached view of your own life.
In the final analysis, of course, self-detachment is not about detachment at all. While it certainly has been proven to be an effective tool for coping with a wide range of situations, including predicaments and hardships from which you cannot escape, its ultimate value lies in the unlimited potential for bringing wholeness and authentic meaning to life. To summon the power of self-detachment and tap into this potential, however, requires both freedom of thought and a will to meaning. And we can only fulfill these requirements if we are not prisoners of our thoughts.
Recall a situation in your work life from which you felt the need to distance yourself before you could find a proper resolution (this may even be your situation today). Perhaps you were faced with a business decision that wasn t aligned with your personal values or ethics. Perhaps you were thrust into an emergency situation that required swift action. How did you distance or detach yourself from the situation? How did you distance or detach yourself from yourself, so that you could view and review your own attitudes and behaviors? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? In particular, what did you learn about your capacity for self-detachment? In hindsight, what would you have done differently in this situation?
Meaning Question: How do you use humor as a way of putting distance between yourself and a challenge at work, instead of getting obsessed with the situation?
For Further Reflection: Think about the ways in which you can help your colleagues and/or co-workers learn and practice self-detachment at work ”as a coping mechanism and a tool for learning and growth. What would you have them do to demonstrate that they understand and can apply this principle?
[ 1 ] Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967),
[ 2 ] The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness at Work (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), p. 200.
[ 3] USA Today, August 19, 2003, pp. 1B “2B.
[ 4] Charlotte Foltz Jones, Mistakes That Worked (New York: Delacorte Press, 1991).
[ 5] Rubin Battino, Meaning: A Play Based on the Life of Viktor E. Frankl (Williston, Vermont: Crown House Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 66; See also: Frankl, Man s Search for Meaning, p. 54.
[ 6 ] Viktor E. Frankl, Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography, p. 98; See also Frankl, keynote address, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12 “16, 1990; Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, pp. 81 “82.