Gallows Humor - GRI Update
There are times when funny isn’t really funny. Ever heard of gallows humor or a nervous laugh? Those phrases often relate to the inappropriate use of humor at times when human emotions are stretched to the breaking point. This is not a new phenomenon. After all, gallows humor is not a modern phrase. Humor has long been used to cover up a larger feeling. What is that larger feeling? Funny you should ask. The underlying feeling is fear. Fear about our own lives, our own safety, health, or well-being. Capital FEAR. It is most evident at the scene of a fatal accident or a violent crime. Some of the things you might hear the police, the firefighters, and others saying would seem very inappropriate to the circumstances. We know that those folks are not mean or cruel, so we decided to look at what might cause such reactions. We soon realized the degree to which people are unwilling to say they are afraid. People say things like, "It was scary - I was angry." Notice how the fear is put outside of self with the word "it," yet anger is very personal, "I was angry." But why?
To understand this phenomenon, you have to go way back to the beginning, when children are small and are just being socialized about dealing with their feelings. After reporting with fear and sadness some real or perceived slight at the pre-school, children are apt to hear, "Don’t be a baby, stand up for yourself." The idea of being scared is equated with being little. Children want to be big, so they associate fear with smallness. Since what we learn in childhood is rarely re-investigated and altered later, it tends to remain as our default setting for dealing with frightening events. Never was this more evident than in the days and weeks after 9/11, when we heard all manner of famous and even credentialed people counseling parents over the airwaves to tell their children "not to be scared" and "not to feel sad".
Some may think that men, more so than women, are prone to hiding their fear. But, in interacting with thousands of people over many years, we noticed that gender was not the issue. Women, who are commonly anointed with the mantle of "bearers of emotions," albeit incorrectly, are as liable to put fear outside while accommodating anger internally, as if it were a valuable commodity. The net effect, regardless of gender, is that at precisely the time when people need to have a greater sense of connection with others, they disconnect by being unintentionally dishonest. The only way to make a connection is by being honest and telling the truth about the feelings attached to the situation.
Oh, by the way, journalists tend to fall into the same camp as the cops and firefighters, since they too are often at the scene, and see and hear stuff that’s pretty hard to take. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and during the recent one-year remembrance, we heard people telling their scared children not to feel what they felt, and thereby put them in direct conflict with their nature and with the truth. We screamed and kicked and carried on, but the other voices drowned us out. Guess we’ll just have to learn to yell louder and maybe to invoke a little help from our friends in the media, to start writing about this topic with an eye towards creating a new perspective. Are any of you afraid of writing about fear?