Humility, curiosity, and a sense of humor

by Mark Safstrom

The first day of fall classes was both eerie and comical. By the time I had walked up three flights of stairs in Old Main and reached my classroom, my plastic face mask and face shield were fogged up and dripping with condensation. I greeted the class, apologizing for being out of breath: “I don’t normally teach with a lampshade on my head.” When students asked me to repeat myself because they couldn’t hear me, I replied “Of course you can’t, my head is wrapped in plastic.” Were they smiling? I couldn’t tell because their mouths were masked! Many more efforts to humanize that abnormal situation masked my own anxiety in returning to the classroom during a pandemic.

Acknowledging the inherent silliness of the moment has been one way of coping with this major social disruption and tragedy. Rather than pretense or escapism, humor can be part of creatively reconstructing the social fabric when it is fraying. The connection between humor and humility has been apparent to me. It takes humility to see ourselves from the outside, and pull us out of the immediacy that overwhelms us with anxieties and fears.

An object lesson in this came for our family several years ago. My grandma was terminally ill and my grandpa was beginning to deal with the reality that the treatments were not working. The bedside manner of the doctor was grounded in humor. In a conversation in which my grandpa’s meandering questions indicated he was becoming distraught, the doctor pointed to this retired engineer’s pocket protector, brimming with unnecessary writing implements, and joked “You know what your problem is? You have too many pens in your pocket.” It was true. My grandpa stopped in the middle of his rambling…and roared with laughter! The doctor was modeling a deeply pastoral kind of humor. This type of humor acknowledges human frailty and restores humanity to a potentially dehumanizing situation.

Having a sense of humor about ourselves – and our beliefs and opinions – is an exercise of self-examination, critical though lighthearted. We are not in control of our situations nearly as much as we imagine. We are also not able to control the broader conversation about our compounded national crises either. Indignant exasperation testifies to our well grounded fears. “How can anyone believe that wearing masks in a pandemic is a political statement?” “How dare anyone claim that America, or the police, are systemically racist?” “Oh, yeah, I can’t believe those people…”

All too often exasperation can also be symptomatic of an extraordinary lack of curiosity about the other side. If we “can’t believe those people,” perhaps we aren’t really trying. We’ve spoken our piece, but aren’t prepared to pick up the pieces. Have we given the other person the necessary space to resist new perspectives that, rightly or wrongly, seem threatening to them? Have we come to terms with the reality that the other side likely may never agree with us? As columnist David Brooks noted as the presidential election results came in, the take away for both sides has been that “…the other side is not going away. We have to dispense with the fantasy that after the next miracle election our side will suddenly get everything it wants.”

It’s a balancing act to differentiate between what I feel I “need” to say and what is actually sufficient for the moment. It means watching the temperature of a conversation and backing off before saying something regretful. Sometimes this means we have excellent points to make, and yet we forego making them for the sake of relationships. Let others have the last word for now, and plan to continue the conversation.

We shouldn’t avoid conflict or compromise our integrity by overlooking injustice. How often though do we enter an argument with the mistaken idea that the goal is to change the other person’s mind, to evangelize them to our side? How unrealistic it is to think that all it would take is five minutes to convince them to buy every plank of the other party’s platform.

When my own mind has been changed in the past, it is rarely an epiphany. It is the result of accumulated conversations with trusted friends who have explained their perspectives calmly and steadily modeled humility and humor. In humility we acknowledge our limits. In humor we stop taking ourselves so seriously and entertain the possibility that the future will still be bright even if it looks different than we imagined.

Guds frid – God’s peace.