June 09, 2009

Humor: Angels and Acrobats

The Acrobat by Marc Chagall, 1930

“Humor requires the same delicacy as tightrope walking or building a house of cards. Unlike the mindless dissociation present in hysterical laughter, humor can never be deployed without some element of an observing ego. As any comedian knows, timing is everything…humor allows us to look directly at what is painful, whereas dissociation distracts us to look in some other direction…

"Humor, like hope, permits one to focus upon and to bear what is too terrible to be borne.” ~George Vaillant, The Wisdom of the Ego

I must be an acrobat. I didn’t know I was an acrobat but evidently, my performance in the family circus was strenuous enough to keep my ego flexible. Relational acrobats like myself are amazingly proficient at bending over backwards to resolve awkward situations even if we weren’t audition material for Cirque de Soleil.

The dictionary defines a funambulist as “a person who performs feats of strength, flexibility, balance and agility with their entire body, in many different forms, using many different things” and that’s why I consider myself to be a funacrobat because living with a narcissist hones death-defying skills like walking on tightropes, dancing on eggshells, balancing the Self between good and evil while dangling over a fiery hell without a safety net. Maybe we believed we had a safety net until we found out the narcissist had surreptitiously clipped our sturdy meshing. Suddenly, there we were, perched above the ground while an awe-struck audience witnessed our fall from grace. And who comes to our rescue, but none other than Angel Hilarious? I suppose if you’re doomed to tumble from a sky-high pedestal built by the idealizing narcissist, you might as well be grinning on your way down.

"At times we cannot bear reality. At such times our minds play tricks on us.”

Like angels.

My guardian angel is a farcical comic, an aerial comedienne descending from the heavens to kiss my brain whenever sudden change or conflict increases my anxiety, threatening another bout with depression. She nudges my inner reality to accept an uninvited outer reality but her timing is capricious, even flabbergasting, not only to myself but to anyone within laughing distance. Sometimes she arrives on cue and saves me from a rip-snorting outburst; other times, she tickles my funny bone when nobody else is amused which gets me in serious trouble like when I dyed my brother’s blond hair brown and he still, to this day, hates me for it. I secretly believe my passion for amateur cosmetology is why he became a lawyer so he could sue his older sister for the ruthless misuse of her little brother and a product called Clairol. Not to be used by minors.

There’s nothing very funny about the narcissist’s pathological defenses erecting an iron curtain between his-or-her self-image and the truth. But there is something incredibly amusing about healthy ego defenses anesthetizing and reducing pain. Immature ego defenses 'block' feelings while mature defenses ‘channel’ them, bringing relief to the subject in distress. If that subject is a people-person who loves to please others as much as herself, she’ll share her humor with wild abandon though some folks might not find her funny at all. Just wild. Like stinkweed. They might as well roll their eyes at the angel though, because people like myself cannot anticipate when or where the angel will appear.

We don’t control Angel Hilarious--we surrender.

The only thing we can predict is that she’ll arrive when we least expect it. Like when we’re arguing with our spouse and suddenly observe ourselves acting like animated characters in a LooneyTunes cartoon which always left me in a fit of laughter until my husband left me in a fit of his own. And he wasn’t laughing. By then, neither was I---at least not until the third day when Angel Hilarious was resurrected from the gravity of the situation. I mean seriously folks, what’s to laugh about when a woman realizes that for decades of time she had minimized the bad, maximized the good, idealized the pathological, devalued the logical, and rationalized the secrets, lies, and videotapes?

George Vaillant wrote a wonderful book called, The Wisdom of the Ego. In his book, he states:

The ego’s greatest ally is other people, the use of defenses should attract people rather than repel them. The greatest distinction between the mature and immature defenses is that with the mature defenses the subject’s regulatory self-deceptions are perceived by those close by as virtuous and attractive. In the case of immature defenses, such self-deceptions are seen by others as irritating, wicked and repellent.” (page 105)

That just about sums up my thirty-plus year marriage. Not that my ego defenses were virtuous and attractive when we first met, but they grew into my psyche like wrinkles grew into my face. As anybody knows, laugh lines and self-deprecating humor are much more appealing than narcissists intent on defending their perfection.

This is what baffles me about ego defenses, though. Psychologists tell us that if we’re aware our ego is protecting itself, the 'defense' no longer works. So in order for the self-deception of an ego defense to be life saving, it has to come from out-of-the-blue. That’s what got me thinking about Ego Defenses being like invisible angels leaving lipstick marks on our foreheads but never making their presence known because if we could see them, they wouldn’t be angels. They’d be minions to our desire to control divinity.

Perhaps it's strange to suggest the divine touches our psyche. That in a mysterious way, the valiant ego defends our self-worth by gracing us with sufficient time to integrate truth. A truth we must cease resisting if grounding ourselves in reality is more desirable than tempting fate with our reckless and invariably destructive escape.

"Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs," said Friedrich Nietzsche, "he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

A rousing blast of gut-rollicking laughter cracks the most rigid of self-pitying shells and expands possibilities we could not see through the blindness of our despair. A hearty laugh revitalizes energy, enhances cognition, mends the broken heart, and arbitrates the paradox of life as both meaningless and meaningful.

If you listen carefully through the rain of your sorrow, you may hear Angel Hilarious negotiating with your soul. “Give me your pride, O serious one,” she'll barter, “and ye shall be blessed with a never-ending supply of knock-knock jokes.”

Humor. 'Tis the kiss of the angels.


The Wisdom of the Ego by George E. Vaillant


  1. "Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs," said Friedrich Nietzsche, "he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

    How so true for without the sounds of my laughter oh what a miserable soul I would be...

  2. Seems like I am reading more about laughter these days as well as Nietzsche. Both are welcomed to live at my house.

    I think laughter takes experiences and turns them less personal. Yet I am interested in reading the book you have read, CZBZ.

    I am certainly liking your recent blog entries and the warm golden color is a yummy change in climate.


  3. Hi CZBZ, I was glad to read your blog. I looked up the book you are referencing and read a few pages offered through Amazon. I also looked at a book on the same subject with higher ratings titled "Protecting the Self".

    What is interesting to me is that in therapy a whole bunch of work was done on defenses. So , in the first three pages of either of these book made complete sense.

    This author (Protecting the self) begins to describe the difference between being "self-centered" and "centering from the self. Which is the difference between being egotistical / unhealthy narcissism and balanced. I felt this book to be a good book as well and ordered both from the library.

    Thanks for blogging about the book.

    I found it an interesting project unloading old defenses which took up a whole lot of space and didn't even work..then loading new coping strategies that allow for more integrated experiences. Self doesn't get threatened so easily these days.

    When reflecting on days enduring a narcissist I can tell that my coping strategies and defense mechanisms were still based on childhood defenses with in abusive situations. Not so odd that it works out that way.


  4. Are you referring to Phebe Cramer, author of "Protecting the Self"? I checked in my local library and couldn't find it. If you wouldn't mind letting me know how you liked her book, I'd sure appreciate it.

    I used to order self-help books by the pound. Now I'm much pickier, eliminating as many books as possible from my Wish-List. If it's not recommended, I don't buy it.

    My new psychological interest is reading about Ego Defenses. It's so fascinating! I don't know if you've done this, but I can review the past few years and see HOW I was struggling to cope with anxiety. You don't know it at the time of course but it's fairly easy to see afterwards.

    Is this what they mean by "Know Thyself"? In other words, get to know your ego defenses and identify your unresolved pain and unrecognized fears!



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