The Joke Pump vs. the Umbrage Mallet


The Youngster and I had a credo regarding humor and delicacy during time spent in our shared household of 2 1/2 years: "The joke is king; all hail the joke."

We made it a credo (or do I mean "maxim," before that crap magazine shanghai'd its meaning?) for a couple of reasons:

First, we both like to laugh, and as a way of showing appreciation for the effort that goes into making a proper tee-up for laughter, you really cannot do better than a neatly symmetrical, deliciously recursive joke itself. (Am I right, or am I right?)

Second, we are both, for a variety of reasons both happy and sad, prone to reflexively reaching for the Joke Pumpâ„¢ in our respective toolboxes. And odds are, when you do something often enough, at some point you're going to make a boo-boo. There will be a tinge of nasty fueling the use of the Joke Pumpâ„¢, or you will just be a little off your game while using the Joke Pumpâ„¢ and will handle it with less than your usual deftatiousness. (And may I jump in here to profess my shock that spell check didn't jump on that word like a red snake afire.)

You will, if you make enough jokes, hurt someone at some point. And like that stupid mini-fire extinguisher you bought at Target after reading some alarmist article in a ladies' magazine, or that box of Arm & Hammer you keep reasonably close to the stove just in case the flambé gets out of hand one day, it's good to have some policies and safety procedures and the like in place beforehand so you don't crispy critter a delicate bystander or blow up a perfectly good friendship by assiness, intended or no.

Recently, for the first time in a long time (that I know of, anyway) I managed to really, really offend someone. And I was shocked and horrified and embarrassed but, and this is a but the size of a lady with a really, really big butt, the very worst thing is that I was ashamed. Because when I am ashamed, I do not reach for the Joke Pumpâ„¢: I reach for the Umbrage Malletâ„¢, and start swinging, hard.

Again, this is a reflexive action, baked in of necessity from earlier, scarier times, but no one on the receiving end of it knows or much cares, consumed as they are with the ducking and/or the seeing of stars and/or the reaching for bludgeons, maces and other devices of an escalatory nature. You may be right and they may be absolutely wrong, but that is only (or usually only, no, it's only) from the context you're lucky or unlucky enough to be stitched into. From their perspective, there can have been no good intention or, 99 times out of 100, they would shoot (or swing, or launch) first and ask questions later.

I've talked before about how therapy doesn't really do much to change anything, but how, in tandem with some excruciating and numbingly repetitive, rehabilitative exercise it can be gangbusters at helping to change reactions to things. It can give you just that little bit of room you might not otherwise perceive in which to absorb fully (i.e., with the non-monkey-brain part of you) and respond differently (e.g., by offering a humble heart rather than flinging a handful of monkey poop). In this case, even as the waves of humiliated, righteous anger washed over me, I had the wherewithal to strap on my goggles and oxygen mask and respond, I hope...I think, with tenderness and lucidity (and mostly tenderness, because that's the role of lucidity).

The offense took place a few nights ago and the relay of hurt later, via email, from someone whom I don't know that well and had not the luxury of calling immediately. Still, I'm pretty sure that my reply expressed my remorse, providing both explanation and apology in the appropriate dosages. We'll see soon enough, but I'm at peace with my actions and payment of any karmic debt.

I bring this up both because it just happened and because this morning, in one of those delightful bits of synchronicity we're treated to now and again, I found this wonderful take from Mark Silver on hurt and how to handle it in my inbox. He talks about it in the context of business, how to handle an angry client, but the Sufism-suffused wisdom within is a balm to any kind of conflagration. My favorite part is this, which I'd had some dim sense of last night but which Mark put so clearly and beautifully:

For someone to complain, they need to already have a sense of safety and trust with you. When that angry or upset person complains, it means they think you care. It means they think they can tell you and not get hurt in return.

I have learned many tricks to keep myself from reaching for the Umbrage Malletâ„¢, but the best one may turn out not to be a trick at all: understand that the person in front of you is inciting this fear and rage and hurt and shame by wielding a big, open heart full of love...


UPDATE (7/30/09): Via email, I got this bit of awesomeness from my friend, Kate, a regular reader and regular provider of great wisdom:

Something my spiritual teacher taught me:

"Anything that is not an expression of love is a cry for help."

How about them apples? Talk about a beautifully constructed single line that can pull you from the precipice of Umbrage Mallet use and back onto the solid ground of love and peace. Anyway, Kate's on dial-up up in the Great White North, so rather than have her jump through 28 baud modem hoops or what have you, I thought I'd post it here for her. Especially since when I asked (pretty please) would she post it in a comment so everyone could see, I sent her to the wrong damned post. Sigh. I'll get this social media stuff down someday. Meanwhile, you should go read her excellent blog. Thanks!

Image by Richard Stowey via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.