I am inclined towards deadly seriousness and if I don’t keep an eye on it, it will rapidly outgrow it’s cuteness and like a baby demogorgon, it will swiftly become menacing and large enough to devour my cat. As a young adult, I read a lot of serious books and watched a lot of serious movies and took myself and my sin and my pursuit of holiness as seriously as if the eternal fate of the world rested on my ability to stop gossiping. Mostly I wanted to heal the world and stop evil and I wanted to matter and those are all, of course, serious things.
I wasn’t a serious kid, though. I grew up in a family that was deeply committed to the spiritual gift of silliness.
We took the sillies very. very. seriously.
When I was eight, my big brother invented a new sketch comedy game to perform for our parents. He’d cover me with a blanket, yell out an inanimate object, and when he pulled the blanket off I had to “be” that object and my parents would guess what it was.
The one I remember is “toilet,” because I was eight and toilets were hilarious. I lay flat on the end of my parents queen sized bed (“The Big Bed” in family vernacular), listening to my parents anticipatory snickering, holding my breath and waiting for the assignment from my brother. TOILET! he commands! Then – woosh!! – off came the blanket! I bobbed my head around like water spinning, and gurgled ca-chuuuug, glub glub, shuwuu shuwuu shuwuu! My mom shrieked a toilet! she’s a toilet!! and tipped over crying with laughter, and my dad bellowed, and my brother proudly twirled the blanket like a cape, the ringleader of the absurdist comedy that was growing up in this funny, funny family.
We called this ritual “Sunday Night Sillies.” My words-loving mother named it, after my brother corralled us into his circus of improv comedy a few weeks in a row after Sunday evening worship. I don’t know what made Sundays so receptive to funny things. Maybe when the veil between heaven and earth is thin, it’s not just holiness that gets out, but silliness, too. Sunday after Sunday, silliness busted out us, because like every family in history, we were a dysfunctional disaster, but unlike every family, we were funny as hell.
We were disproportionately noisy for a family of four. Our dinner table was full of chaotic energy. My big brother and my mom bounced banter like a tennis ball across the dinner table while my dad laughed generously, everyone interrupting and giggling and and sometimes yelling to be heard. Sometimes I’d have dinner at friends’ houses in our homeschool evangelical circle, and come home disoriented by how quiet they were, how polite and disciplined, how respect for elders was prioritized and enforced. This did not make sense to me. There was only one dinner rule at our house, and it was to get as much talking in as possible, as quickly as you could (before you got interrupted), and to make everyone laugh as much as you could.
We were always a little bit outside our evangelical homeschool subculture, and I think the laughing had something to do with it. It’s hard to be prone to silliness and still buy what a self-righteous, overly serious subculture is selling. Laughter can be a protective charm against evil enchantments, especially self-important religious ones.
Our family never explicitly named that subversive dynamic, but we lived it on Sunday nights after church, when we cleared space for silliness.
One of my very favorite high school memories is playing Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom is a pompous, overly serious little blue collar man, determined to finagle his co-workers into community theater – this is real art! important art! serious things! It’s easy to play Bottom for cheap laughs – a little meanly, encouraging the audience to make fun of him. It’s a lot more fun, though, to play him earnestly and gently. I loved him, and I wanted the audience to love him, and I wanted us to see ourselves in him even while our sides split open at this obsessive, meticulous, self-important artist who wants to make a beautiful thing, and makes a ridiculous one by accident.
I love Bottom, and I loved playing Bottom. Being funny on a stage always feels like the one of the only places where I find something like “ego death” – the self dropping away, because we’re all participating in something much bigger. Being funny on a stage doesn’t really feel like “being funny” to me, more like finding the funny – you go hunting for the water with your divining stick, and when you find it’s not just the audience that gets to drink the icy cold spray that blasts up, but you, too. Sometimes I’m as surprised where the funny is as the audience. Who saw THAT coming, guys?!?
Madeleine L’Engle talks about humility and creativity in her lovely book A Circle of Quiet. Humility, she says, is when you are so lost in your creativity that you aren’t sure where you end and the work begins. You are fully present, and somehow, at the same time, fully disappeared. Paul would call this being “dead to self,” although he probably wouldn’t have patience for talking about creativity as the conduit to it. I have always loved C.S. Lewis’ definition of humility, which is “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
Creativity is one of the ways that we find this ego death of “thinking of ourselves less.” Silliness is another. It wasn’t an accident that my family had our sillies on a Sunday, on the day that we were very open to what was sacred.
“Save us from gloomy saints!” St. Teresa quipped once, and gosh I do not want to be the gloomy saint that she is being saved from. Seriousness can grip me and consume me, though, and before I know it, I’m deep in another philosophical tome wondering what exactly the meaning of the resurrection is if we dismantle the patriarchal cruelty of penal substitutionary atonement and subconsciously accepting that it really matters to the salvation of the world where I come down on this subject.
It does not really matter to the salvation of the world where I come down on this topic.
It doesn’t matter nearly as much as I think it does, and definitely doesn’t matter as much as I wish it did.
And that is just OK.
The older I get, the more I realize that I’m not a Shakespearean king stomping around the stage in pathos and dignity; and not a Shakespearean tragic heroine, going slowly and elegantly insane with great depth of feeling and perfect eyeliner; but just mostly Bottom – a little ridiculous, a little self-important, incredibly stressed – but also deeply lovable, and deeply beloved.
This is the subversive and holy power of silliness. We see ourselves and the whole world in perspective – just exactly as small as we are, dots on a planet hurtling through space at astounding speeds, empires rising and falling in the blink of an eternal eye, and here we are – like Bottom, trying to make art, trying to feel like we matter, trying to love our neighbor. It’s a lot easier to do all this when we release our pretentiousness and fake fanciness and put-on airs. We are so small, Beloved, and so loved, God tells us constantly, every day, in the rising and setting sun and in the seasons that pass through and in baby showers and funerals and obituaries and history books. We’re so small, but so loved.
We don’t have to be afraid of being ridiculous, as if being ridiculous is a threat to our being. Although, I guess, ridiculousness is a threat to our being, because it’s a threat to our ego. But our ego is not as important to our survival as we thought. Our self, our being, is not the same as our ego. We can watch it die, and still our deepest self exists.
When I write about humor, I feel a little bit like our blessed Patron Saint of Moral Philosophy, Immanuel Kant, who once wrote a very serious essay on humor that includes a great number of not very funny jokes to prove his point. Writing a solemn blog post about how important it is to be silly is maybe counterintuitive.
But sometimes I need a serious explanation of why it’s OK to get someone to cover my shift at work so that I can sneak away to a silly, earnest little musical on a Thursday night and laugh so hard that I have to unbutton the top button of my jeans. Sometimes I need an excuse to put “play!” on my calendar. Sometimes I need to believe that silliness is a moral demand and not just an elective.
I am also taking an improv class which meets, of course, on a Sunday.