Too Mad to Laugh!


This article by the noted Quaker author and philosopher is reprinted by permission from Quaker Life, published by the Friends United Meeting, Richmond, Indiana.

Though it is sometimes said that ours is an immoral or at least an amoral generation, this is mani­festly untrue. It would be far closer to the truth to say that we are too moral, too judgmental, too condemning. The photographs of campus confrontations and vio­lence normally depict those who are "angry." "Professor faces irate students" is a standard head­line. Always there is some claim about injustice or unfairness, and the faces in the photographs are contorted by bitterness. If there is any pleasure, it is the pleasure of denunciation. There is no lack of dedication; what is lacking is laughter!

Since the issues in the confron­tations are uniformly simple, in the eyes of the violent, instead of calm discussion, we have "de­mands." The mood which now re­ceives the most publicity is strik­ingly similar to that of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. The ones who are featured in the headlines are not marked by a lack of con­cern for morals, but by that ex­treme concern for morals which is the essence of fanaticism. We are, in fact, plagued by an inverted Puritanism.

The lack of humor is abundantly evident in contemporary student assemblies. The speaker, in ad­dressing a thousand students, em­ploys an approach which has ap­pealed to many other student gen­erations as very funny, but only a small minority now laughs. The others keep their straight Puri­tanical faces. It is not that they have heard the joke before; it is simply a failure to respond to subtle approaches to the truth. Violent attack is a different mat­ter and this brings instant re­sponse, but dull people are not made wise simply by becoming angry.

The decline of laughter is not merely an evidence of the widely publicized "generation gap." In­deed, there is grave doubt whether the generation gap so often men­tioned exists at all. Though there is always some difficulty in com­munication between different ages of human beings, this is not now the chief problem. What has ap­peared is an "idea gap." I realize how nearly independent of age this is when I encounter the enor­mous difficulty of communication between groups of the same age. I feel actually closer in thought to some persons of twenty than to some of my own age.

The decline of laughter appears to depend on nothing more pro­found than the recognition that ours is an imperfect world. Why this should be a shocking discov­ery, I have no idea, but it seems to be such to many in our genera­tion. Much of the problem is really philosophical. Millions have im­bibed the sentimental idea of nat­ural human goodness and have really expected utopia right around the corner. When it does not come, they are angry in their disap­pointment and begin to indulge in harsh judgment of others. The em­phasis, accordingly, is always on other people’s sins, but never on our own. If only the establish­ment could be changed or replaced, then the problem would be solved! But, of course, it is not solved. In the progress of the French Revo­lution the establishment was dis­placed, all right, but what ensued was a reign of terror.

What we need in our time is a mature realism which makes us understand that the human pre­dicament is with us to stay. We shall not eliminate sin in others and we shall not eliminate it in ourselves. We shall not achieve utopia in universities or anywhere else, though we can make some things relatively better than they are. Meanwhile we are wise to learn again to laugh, primarily at ourselves.



Ralph Waldo Emerson

We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment. 


September 1969

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