“A Joke Is An Epitaph To An Emotion”


On Friday, I had the honor of meeting a trusted colleague and friend for tea. I must say, he’s one of my most reliable coaches on my writing journey. Whenever I’m discouraged, I know I can go to him. He offers me unconditional support, sound advice, and tactful critiques. And he pays for dinner!

Halfway through my cup of Earl Grey, I realized not only does my friend have a knack for producing fascinating topics to explore, he also has an encyclopedia’s amount of information cataloged in his brain. One of his most remarkable talents includes an incredible penchant for remembering quotes and lines from songs and poems.

Anyway, during the course of our discussion, we touched upon emotions and how people cover them with jokes in order to suppress the pain of their impact. (In “psychiatry speak,” humor is considered a mature defense mechanism. It’s something relatively healthy people employ in the face of hardship and stress.)

My friend aptly pointed out this quote from Nietzsche:

“A joke is an epitaph to an emotion.”

What an important idea to remember. Not only is this pertinent to my work in psychiatry, it is also useful to keep in mind when I’m writing. For the most part, anger and sadness come relatively easy to me as I construct a scene. It’s simple enough to describe yelling, slamming fists, and storming out of rooms. I’ve used several terms for tears and grieving too. What I get stuck on is humor. I can do the subtle stuff, sure–the puzzled expression, the dry joke, even the comical slip and slide on an icy sidewalk. But true laugh out loud humor eludes me.

As a good friend should, my literary cheerleader triggered a cascade of thoughts leading me to action from that simple quote. So often in my writing, I am in the moment explaining the direct, raw emotion. I’m left to wonder, where is the space to incorporate a humorous reflection, a comic relief character, or a joke to lighten an overly negative mood?

My new task, then, is to scour my writing and look for spots where humor can be incorporated. I am certain including little punches of laughter and happiness will make my characters more well rounded, more dynamic, and more human.

Epitaphs don’t only have to be on tombstones.

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11 comments on ““A Joke Is An Epitaph To An Emotion”

  1. Some good advice and definitely something to think about. Also, how do the other characters respond to someone making jokes in dire situations? Certainly adds a bit more colour to the scene. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. Bella says:

    Hi Laura:

    I don’t have the psychiatric theories behind humor down, but I have noticed something consistent among the men I know who’ve cheat on their girlfriend/spouses. They told “jokes” that were absolutely true, like:

    “Oh, right. I’m sleeping with a girl I picked up at some tanning salon.”

    or,

    “I’ve had a girlfriend for six months and no one knows. I’d better start packing!!!”

    Both of those “jokes”, from different men, were true. Is there a medical explanation? Aside from Dumba**itis?

  3. lbdiamond says:

    Bella, LOL! Though this is my personal opinion and not based on any scientific literature that I could quote, I think it is part of the Y chromosome. (Sorry, guys, but you get to pick on shopping and shoe fetishes for ladies!)

    Though I must add a caveat: All human beings, when they have a “secret,” find it almost impossible to keep it completely under wraps. As a result, it (the secret) leaks out in various ways–body language, “odd” behavior, and, in some cases it seems, bad jokes. *shrug*

  4. I had never thought of jokes in this light. Fascinating. It may explain why I have an odd sense of humor.

    A great post! I’m linking back to you.

  5. Bella says:

    Laura – that really made me think. I agree it is very hard to keep a secret. I’m pretty good at keeping other people’s secrets, less good at keeping my own 🙂

    Thankfully, I behave myself.

  6. philangelus says:

    I’ve found that in my own writing, anger creates a lot of the humor. The funniest moments arise from the situations where the characters should be angriest–or the reader (in my straight humor writing.)

    In my own life,I told the nastiest, darkest joke of my life about two hours after my daughter was diagnosed with a fatal birth defect, trying to explain it to a friend of mine. SHe said, “I don’t know whether to laugh or scream.” Neither did I.

    • lbdiamond says:

      Thank you for sharing, philangelus. You hit the nail on the head. As far as choosing between screaming and laughing–do both. As often as you need to. (Disclaimer: I’m not advocating for outright break downs, but release of emotion can be healing.)

  7. Brenda Drake says:

    Wonderful piece, Laura. I had a moment like this last week. My son was crying on my shoulder (literally) after learning his friend had passed. I told him he was flooding my shoulder and we laughed. He pulled himself together and then went off to be with his friends. Humor has pulled me through many sorrowful times. I don’t think I use humor when my characters are going through heartbreaking times, I’ll have to remember to. Thank you for bringing it up!

  8. Hawkeye says:

    I personally have been aware of this quote for several decades. In medicine we see it as dissociation from a true emotion one cannot deal with and summarizing it as a joke to make the situation seem bearable.
    Here I’ve presented several examples. Some are very gross and lack good taste, but none-the-less display the idea well. Others are more subtle and tease at your hidden feelings.
    e.g. don’t be sad about the mastectomy, one should not cry over spilt milk.
    e.g. After an enucleation (removing one’s eye) saying boldly that “I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
    The classic example: After an amputation on the wrong leg, amputation of the diseased leg needs to be done: “Don’t worry, I know someone who wears your size shoes.”

    The less gross and more subtle:
    e.g. There are sure a lot of grey-headed people here at church studying their bibles. “Don’t worry yourself; they are just cramming for finals.”
    e.g. There seems to be a growing number of people in the world out-stripping the natural resources. “Don’t worry; a good war with a lot of casualties will realign proper distribution of population densities.”

    Sick? I do think so.

    Humorous? To some, maybe.

    Hope this helped you.

    Hawkeye

    (M.A.S.H.) p.s. They used a lot of this type of humor in the TV series of old.

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