Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

21-13. Humour in the Midst of Despair

July 16 is the 3rd anniversary of my first emotional breakdown during my grieving years, and since I am prone to paying attention to milestones (see last blog post, On Birthdays!) I naturally am aware of this past significant event in my life. I don’t consciously choose to remember this unhappy time but I have little choice. Memory is a curious thing that way – it isn’t selective about what it remembers (suppressed memory is a myth) it just stores it all away. And the memories return whenever some external event calls them to mind. The images and elements that comprised the [original] event, even though distorted over time by the many revisions we have made to the original mental model, are still there. They are packed away in our neural vaults for use whenever it becomes necessary to retrieve them, assuming we can retrieve them (but that may be the subject of a future post – problems with memory in the aging brain).  

Even though this blog post is on humour (eventually), having a mental breakdown is no laughing matter. The events themselves were shocking, debilitating, distressing – and memorable. They are vivid in my mind (they? – I had two more breakdowns in that period three years ago, in August and October; after the last one I was merely crazy) vivid, yet the specifics are quite fuzzy.

Since they were debilitating events, and the memory of them only slightly less debilitating, my friends advise me, ‘just don’t think about it’. But this is empty advice, a philosophical and physical impossibility. You cannot not think of something. You either think of something, or you do not think of something, but you cannot will yourself to not think of something. More than that, memory is ‘triggered’ (as much as I loathe that overworked sympathy seeking word) by external events. Your mind doesn’t troll your brain constantly reviewing all your memory banks (or maybe it does but we aren’t aware of it, except possibly in remembered dreams). Instead, your sensory neural networks scan the external environment constantly seeking to satisfy basic needs[1] (sustenance, security, sex); it evaluates the incoming stimuli, ignores most as not relevant, but tweaks to incoming messages that might pertain to one of the above critical criteria. It compares the incoming stimuli with things stored in memory and then, being a predictive machine, guesses what might come next and acts accordingly. But note, it’s not the memory that causes the action, it’s the incoming stimuli which in almost every case is a random event[2].

(I know what you’re thinking, not all stimuli are external, surely. Surely the sense of being thirsty is internal. Well yes, the sense of thirst may be internal to ‘you’ but external to your brain. Somehow the body detects low water levels, sends a signal to the brain with a demand to get on this problem. The brain consults memory and recalls where the best place is to get a drink (of water!) in these here parts[3].

Memory is associative. [Long term] Memories are stored all over the brain (though mostly in the components of the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala) assigned according to the brain’s storage algorithms (mostly in the hippocampus).  These memories are somehow synaptically connected depending on similarity and usage – things frequently recalled appear to be clustered in the same parts of the brain, things less frequently referred to are off on some lonely tendril, which is why you have trouble remembering Nancy’s name, but not Monica’s mammaries. When an external stimulus comes into your sensory processors a memory is triggered, but not just the memory of the previous stored similar/same event but any number of associated memories. This is why when you smell a freshly baked apple pie, you also think of gramma; or you hear an old favoured tune and you remember the time you danced with your lover to that song. 

So, I don’t try to remember those moments of despair – I may be melancholic but am not into self-harm – they are thrust upon me. A song, a body shape glimpsed on the street, a date on the calendar – and the memory pops up. July 13, 14, 15 and 16 figure highly in my memories (as do a number of dates in August, yet to come). I can’t stop time and so these dates will come. I suppose I could destroy all calendars and try for temporal oblivion but I think that a hopeless quest.

If I can’t stop the triggers, and the consequent memories, what can I do to self-sooth? I‘m finding more and more that eating is not a good strategy. Drinking has become less and less appealing. Sex might be a perfect solution if the object of my desire was not twelve thousand miles and twelve hours distant. 

Distraction is the next best remedy. Mind-absorbing projects has been my go-to strategy but lately I find finding flow difficult, call it Covid ennui. Reading has real value as a mental distraction but there is only so much reading tired eyes and mind can tolerate. I muse about music, but that is merely a constant companion, not a distraction. I find searching for an interesting program on tv very frustrating and soon give up, promising myself, tomorrow I’ll finally get that Apple tv appliance. 

But humour. There is the solution.

Curiously, humour has to do with the brain/mind being ‘surprised’ by what just happened. The brain processes information constantly and compares it with already known things in order to evaluate and act accordingly. Consequently the mind anticipates outcomes when the patterns become evident. Then comes the punch-line, the unexpected event, the surprising break in the pattern. When synapses are tickled, the mind laughs. 

The Readers’ Digest used to have a regular instalment entitled, ‘Laughter, the Best Medicine’ (maybe it still does but I haven’t seen a Readers’ Digest in decades). Personally, I think loving sex is the best medicine but maybe the Readers’ Digest is more readily available.

Read any on-line dating service and you’ll see that women expect men to have a good sense of humour. I doubt men ask for the same in women. (I wonder how many men go without dates because they lack a good sense of humour.)

Is it possible some people don’t have a sense of humour? I often thought my mother, severe serious Mom, may have lacked a sense of humour, but then, she likely thought the same of me, and she thought my dad ridiculous. I used to opine that It also appears sense of humour is correlated with intelligence – fast processing synapses. (I say ‘used to’; these days that is probably pic.) The more sophisticated [subtle, dry] the situation, verbal or otherwise, the more the receiver needs to be tuned into it. I hate to say it, not all of us are blessed with a really ‘wicked’ sense of humour – some stuff just goes over our heads. Conversely, intelligent people may not find ‘low-brow’ humour funny, [What’s funny about slipping on a banana peel?][4] and probably would be embarrassed that they actually laughed at someone else’s misfortune. (I hasten to add, my mother was very intelligent; maybe she was just missing the humour gene. My father on the other hand…)

Does having high intelligence give you a sense of humour?, or does having a sense of humour make you merely appear intelligent? But what kind of intelligence? (Are these serious questions? Maybe I’m just joking with you.) Or as Woody Allen has said, maybe a sense of humour is just a freak of nature.

So, to assuage my melancholic mind I have turned to reading lighter stuff, and viewing ancient Johnny Carson YouTube videos. I’m reading Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky series about a seriously cloistered university professor of philology, 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom, including Portuguese Irregular Verbs; and Bill Bryson’s, Notes from a Small Island, an Affectionate Portrait of Britain

Buried in the irreverent Bryson is this pearl of wisdom (and I paraphrase, slightly): ‘The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy: First, you were born… being born was the most remarkable achievement of your life: Each time your dad ejaculated (and lets face it, he did that quite a lot), he sent roughly 25 million spermatozoa into the world. But most of the time they had nowhere to go. In the rare event you (your spermatozoon self) were actually given the chance to swim the English Channel of your mother’s vagina competing against 24,999,999 contenders and first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were, well that’s a bloody miracle.

‘Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you did not. Soon you will cease to exist once more. That you are able to sit here right now reading this, eating bonbons, dreaming about having hot sex with that scrumptious person in accounts (or maybe more than dreaming), well that is wondrous beyond belief.

‘Third, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree’ (or pick your own worst song – mine is Paul Anka’s ‘You’re Having my Baby’, gag) will never be number one again!’

Who said, ‘laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone’? I think she was right; laughing alone is pretty hollow. And that, friends, is why we must get back to social contact again. We need to have a few laughs, with friends, and forget our unwelcome cares.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

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[1] Despite Maslow’s hierarchy of higher level needs, as far as the brain is concerned, the three s’s are the only ones that matter. What the mind thinks may be another matter.

[2] Which reminds me, I’m now reading a delightful, perhaps mildly cynical, book called The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Leonard Mlodinow

[3] I was thinking of this problem, how mechanical the brain really is, while gazing out the window at my backyard bird sanctuary when I spotted a bright yellow finch swoop down to the birdbath and take a sip. I’d seen him there before so evidently he had stored in memory the existence of my watering hole. But how did he know he was thirsty?

[4] “The clearest indication of character is what people find laughable.” – Goethe

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