Friday, August 24, 2012

THE FIRST WORD – Death by Rote - part 2 of 2

(Okay, where were we? I had just stood facing an audience of 200-plus schoolmates and teachers, frozen by fear, noteless and clueless as to how to begin my supposedly memorized speech. All I could come up with was a cold sweat, a couple of dry gulps, and the concluding paragraph of my speech.)

                      Humor is tragedy plus time.MARK TWAIN

It took me many years to realize that feigning laryngitis was not the lesson I’d been meant to learn that day. The real lesson, in fact, ultimately came from what occurred just a minute or so after my fiasco.

The next speaker that day was a tall, gangly upperclassman named Todd. I remember him as a quiet, kind young man. (Though bad knees kept him from being very athletic in his school days, I found out years later that he’d become a world-class speed walker.)

Each time he paused to catch his breath, there was that little smile…a statement. 

As he walked past me to the lectern, he gave me a kind, understanding smile. How I envied him for that serenity. He stood up and faced the same audience I’d just disappointed so spectacularly.

But he knew the first words of his speech, the then-timely “Splendor in the Grass” ode by Wordsworth. His problem was that he couldn’t get those words out.


“Th-th-th…th-th-there was a t-t-t…” He tried again. “Th-there w-w-was a t-t-t-t…”
Todd’s demon was not his fear; it was the wire between his brain and his larynx. But he seemed to understand and accept his handicap. Trying to wring the words out contorted his face, but each time he paused to catch his breath, there was that little smile…a statement.

For Todd, this speech, even as he struggled with it, wasn’t the only thing in his world. After several agonizing minutes of trying, he stopped, took a deep breath, smiled broadly and said, with barely a hitch, “Sorry, I’m a little t-t-tongue-tied today.” Then he sat down.

Everyone in the auditorium sprang to their feet and cheered. I did too, even though I was still feeling so humiliated that I could barely see over my own shame.

I can see it so clearly now; it was that slight smile, that nod of self-deprecation, that liberating touch of humor, that had allowed Todd to reclaim the audience I’d managed to let down. The malady—fear—that had brought me to my knees can’t touch people like Todd; they have the antidote.

Now I know there’s plenty of humor out there that’s funnier than this example. There’s humor of far more consequence, humor that helps people, at least temporarily, to put a new face on their pain and suffering. And there’s certainly humor that delivers more powerful messages.

That liberating touch of humor had allowed 
Todd to reclaim the audience I’d managed
to let down.

By those measures, what Todd did and said that day would hardly register on the scale. But it took no more than the sheer contrast between our two speeches nearly a half century ago—one a disaster, the other a triumph—to impress on me, indelibly, that humor is not nearly as much about the material as it is about a state of mind.

The power of that kind of humor, I decided, is nothing short of transcendent.

I can be funny—really funny; just ask my friends. But that doesn’t mean I have a great sense of humor. That’s because I take myself way too seriously. On the other hand, one can have a great sense of perspective on life, laugh off misfortune and smile at his own shortcomings, and still not be funny.

I guess I’d rather be the latter guy. A guy like Todd.

Humor is perspective. And it couldn’t be a more appropriate topic for a blog about new ways of looking at things. Neither the funny kind nor the lighthearted kind suffers tunnel vision kindly. Nor do they tolerate self-absorption.

On the contrary, humor separates you from what is happening to you. It recognizes that, whatever your misfortune might be, it can’t touch the essence of who you are.

Humor defends your boundary; it says, okay, you can make me sweat a little, but that essence, my core of certainty about who I am and what’s really important, is off limits. Have a nice day.


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