‘Why are so many psychotherapists on the depressive side?’  Alan asked just before the end of the year. ‘Answers on a postcard please.  My answer is something along lines of; only depressives have a higher sense of the absurd & ergo do not, well now & again, take it all too seriously.’  But, as ever, he made me think – a bit.    

What can you do when life gets too serious, when you feel so devastated by what has happened, you don’t know how you can carry on?   Get involved in a project?  Join a group? Go travelling?  Talk to a therapist? Or just pretend you don’t care. What’s the point in worrying?  It never was worthwhile.  Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.  And smile boys, smile.  The ‘what the hell defense’ worked well enough for some in The Great War, but that was hell!    

Insouciance can be a more disarming strategy than aggression, as Jimmy Carter found to his cost during his presidential debate with Ronald Reagan.  He tried so hard to contruct a statistical assault that would make his opponent appear ill informed and stupid.  Reagan wouldn’t engage with it.  He just smiled good naturedly and replied, ‘there you go again’.  And so he captured the initiative and the popular vote.  But Ronald Reagan never seemed to take anything seriously and perhaps for that reason was always considered somewhat lightweight. He concealed his anger, fear and despair behind a bland façade, like a mask.  That reminds me of the scene in Cries and Whispers when the doctor takes Maria to the mirror and points out how lines of indifference, formed over many years, have marked the innocent beauty of her face.   

Comics take insouciance a stage further.  Comedy is the theatre of the absurd.  It defuses, makes safe, affords a means of saying difficult things without shocking or giving offense. As a subterfuge, this can be such fun, but it is also a powerful defense. It defends against meaning, or at least the seriousness of meaning.  So when people consistently adopt comedy and facetiousness as a way of coping, are they hiding the serious stuff of how vulnerable they feel?  So we should be careful not to respond in the same way, for fear we belittle something they really take very seriously. It may be ok for them to criticize their own sister,  but if you do it, watch out.

Comics can be so terribly sensitive and, like therapists, are prone to depression. It’s the sad face of the clown.  Think of some of the comics you know; Billy Connolly, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Tony Hancock, or John Cleese, for example.  They have different styles, absurdly catastrophic, deadpan, ridiculous or withering and dangerous. Their wit is both a sword and shield.  They are as skilled at projecting their own instability and fear onto their hapless audience as they are at defusing aggression and subduing powerful adversaries by presenting themselves as psychologically flawed.   They survive on a psychological knife’s edge.  We sense the risk but we laugh with them in the face of their danger – and by inference, ours!         


With thanks to Dr Alan Lidmila for inspiration!