Gallows Humor

Whenever I give a workshop or a lecture, I never fail to encourage participants to read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps during World War II and who developed a form of psychotherapy called Logotherapy as a result. His book profoundly shows how individuals can survive the most horrific situations through grace, dignity, and humor.

In the preface of the book, Gordon Allport writes: “Hunger, humiliation, fear, and deep anger at injustice are rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humor, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature—a tree or a sunset.” I’ve heard many accounts of how this type of humor, called “gallows humor,” has helped many people in difficult jobs, particularly health-care professionals. Anyone overhearing some of the conversation between nurses or doctors might be deeply offended, but for them it becomes a way to get relief from the horrors they witness. One of the most popular shows on television was “Mash” which was the quintessential example for “gallows humor”.

The great humanitarian psychologist Abraham Maslow once said “we must laugh at what we hold sacred and still hold it sacred”. This is often difficult for individuals who are heavily invested in thinking that their way is the way. Not being able to take the position of “the witness to your thinking patterns can lead you down the path to fanaticism. When we are fanatical about how we must live our lives and how others must also follow suit we are embarking on trying to become the leader of a cult.

I have listened to thousands of people describe situations that they deplore but cannot find a way out due to their inability to explore options. Their story becomes like an old TV series that plays over and over and they can’t seem to change the channel. What always fascinates me is that they lack a healthy sense of humor. Humor helps us to see the light and when you become fanatical the light is very dim or essentially non-existent.

I was very fortunate to be brought up in an irreverent family. As a child, I was dragged to many an Italian funeral, which often resembled a Frederico Fellini movie. There was high drama as a plethora of black clad women showed up to wail and moan. Then there would be bursts of laughter as people recalled stories about the dearly beloved. And, of course there was the inevitable discussion about the food that was to follow.

In today’s world we must all try to maintain the ability to laugh at what we hold sacred and to still hold it sacred. It will not only help maintain our sanity by also our ability to tolerate one another.



2 Replies to “Gallows Humor”

  1. Like fine wine, you’ve only gotten better with age! I remember so many years ago when you came to Dartmouth to Potter School, I believe. I never clean the bathroom that I don’t recall the tiny Italian toilet inspector. Or, we need milk? Bread? A famine!
    No church sermon ever stuck with me that long!

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