Learn to Laugh

Freud categorized certain common coping strategies as “defense mechanisms.”  Most people are familiar with at least a few of them – repression, denial, regression and rationalization. Later, scholars broke them down into hierarchical categorizations.

Believe it or not, humor, where an uncomfortable or unpleasant internal reaction is transformed into a more enjoyable emotion, is considered one of the “higher-order” defense mechanisms.

Since high school, I’ve known my tendency to seek the humor in the things that happen to me was a way of coping with the inherent discomfort.  A couple of weks ago, a line from a song reminded me of this:


It’s only funny ‘cause I learned to laugh.


How many of us, with what degree of frequency, teach ourselves to laugh instead of cry? Another musician’s words come to mind:


You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.


I worry about how people with disabilities handle the ongoing, daily discrimination and oppression they face. I’ve watched many people become increasingly bitter and then be rejected more because of that bitterness.  I’ve noticed others become comedians, poking fun at themsellves before another can do it.  (This is often hard to discern from those who use humor as a means to dispel others’ discomfort.)  Sometimes the humor turns dark, as if the bitter and the funny were shaken well, then poured.  As I think back, I know my own use of comedy has evolved, from protective to bitter to something cleansing.

No matter how we have each learned to cope, our coping sprang from a need to handle constant emotional assaults from the outside world.  Yet, our world praises the disabled comedian and shuns the bitter one.

I’m not going to suddenly give up my tendency to find the funny, but I am beginning to wonder if bitterness is, in fact, a more honest reaction.  How people with disabilities are treated is painful.  Transforming that hurt into humor is far more enjoyable for everyone involved, but is it as honest as bitter?


The following was posted as my contribution to  Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016 

Disability I.Q. Math

While I will argue with my last breath that the social isolation I experience is a factor of other’s attitudes and beliefs, I internally constantly re-examine this. Unfortunately, the world feeds this constant search for an explanation with my actions, words and shortcomings at its center.  (Are you giving in to your shyness?  Are you seeking people out?  Are you self-absorbed?  Are you no fun to be around?  Are you unclean?)  Seeking fault in myself is a habit that has reached the level of reflex.

It’s a bad habit that keeps me constantly doubting myself, allowing those around me to remain blameless.  It is an internal dialogue that tears me down and I can never really like myself because I am forever finding fault with myself.

This maladaptive tendency was highlighted recently.  First, I attended a group gathering with a friend, which was described in the previous two posts.  Then, I went off and spent time with a gaggle of bisexual people coming together for a wWite House event.  Typically, with group gatherings, I find myself hanging out with my dog as others chat and laugh.  There are those who make an effort, but it is an obvious effort as opposed to genuine desire to spend time with me.

This time, the proportions were all off.  The alone moments still occurred, but moments of connection and social inclusion were more numerous.  Guess what?  I had fun.  There was, gasp, social ease, which I quickly learned was a state I rarely have ever experienced.

Over the course of about 48 hours, the reason became clear.  The number of people in the group who knew about disability was higher than the usual.  I heard, more than once, “Oh, my blind friend ….”  I heard, “Yeah, so-and-so uses a wheelchair….”  There was even, “At the confrence we organize, we provide accommodations such as….”  It was a group of people with an average disability IQ far higher than anything I’ve encountered, unless I was with a group of people with disabilities.

So, maybe it is simply about how many people know how much.  Measure the disability IQ of the individuals constituting a group and it will predict my experience.  If that is in fact true, then it cannot be about me.  It is about  math.

A Lukewarm Welcome

Guest post by Mike Croghan

A few weeks ago, my friend Jen was in town for an event at the White House with the US bisexual community. Jen arrived on a Saturday evening, and my wife Tina and I were excited to bring Jen to church on Sunday to meet our friends there. Tina and I are part of a small, independent, progressive, non-hierarchical Christian church community that meets in a coffee shop and concert venue. The community has a long-established track record of welcoming and including all kinds of people, regardless of religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or sexual or gender identity. The community does not have much history with people with disabilities, but it never occurred to me that this would be an obstacle to welcoming Jen. (As you probably know if you’re a reader of this blog, Jen is blind and has an adorable guide dog named Camille.)

We got a little bit of a late start, and showed for the customary post-church lunch gathering at the Chipotle next to the coffee shop. The folks from church had taken over all of the outdoor tables on the patio. Jen and Camille and Tina and I came up to the closest table to the entrance, which was occupied by a gaggle of kids. We said hi, and some of the kids (who were done eating) got up and went to play elsewhere, so Tina and Jen and Camille sat down, and I went into the restaurant to get us food.

When I came out, the three of them were moving to the table at the far end of the patio, where our friends Maranda and Heidi and Ryan were sitting. Tina later told me that this was because nobody was talking to them at the other table. Heidi was just leaving for an appointment, and Ryan was done eating, so there were available chairs. We sat down and ate, and Maranda chatted with us, but no-one else came over except for Lydia, a middle-school girl who came up and talked to all of us. When I was done eating, I got up and talked to some other folks, and I noticed that Leigh, our former church intern, came over to the far table at one point, and Tina told me that another person came over and spoke to everyone at our table except Jen. But apart from that, I don’t think any of the 25 or so of our friends on that patio talked to Jen – or even to Tina or me when we were with her.

There was no single, individual lack of interaction that felt at all rude or hard to explain. People were absorbed with their own families and friends. Folks had visitors in from out of town that they rarely got to talk with. There were little circles discussing church business, or the service that had just concluded, or recent movies. There was no particular individual that I would fault with failing to welcome Jen – but in the aggregate, the group’s silence boomed loud. I was pretty disappointed in my community, but talking to Jen about it later, it seems like it was all too typical of her everyday experience.

It’s hard for me to say for sure what led to this uncharacteristically rude group behavior. I can’t know what motivated anyone without talking to them, and it’s hard to single out anyone to talk to. Because, as I said, it seemed to me that the group behavior, not any individual’s behavior, was problematic. But if I had to guess, I would guess that my friends didn’t approach Jen (or us) because talking to a blind woman was unfamiliar territory for them. They were afraid that if they tried, they would do something wrong – so they chose the “safer” route and didn’t try. And in their concern to avoid screwing it up…they screwed it up. So, if I’m right, the underlying problem was a lack of knowledge and experience – things that could only be gained by a conscious effort to explore territory beyond the communal comfort zone. Which is an opportunity that they had, and missed out on, on a sunny Sunday morning in September.

Changing Perspectives

I was fortunate to be invited to the recent White House policy briefing for the bisexual community. Even better, I was able to attend thanks to help and support from a variety of people.  (You know who you are and your help is appreciated.)

While in DC, I stayed with Mike and Tina, friends from high school.  We all trooped off to a

weekly lunch that always follows a faith-based gathering – the equivalent of coffee after church. In general, this collection of individuals is progressive and has a sense of social justice.  Over the years, Mike has told me a great deal about this caring and supportive community where he has invested so much of his time, energy and heart.  I was eager to go forth and meet everyone.

It did not quite work out that way.  I was a part of one conversation, introduced briefly to another person and mostly simply absorbed the vibe.  Oh, yeah, and Camille and I displaced people from their seats not because I asked, but because they decided I needed the seat more and went elsewhere.  (I can’t be sure, but I think the table had empty seats, so I felt a little bit like Typhoid Mary.)   In other words, it was my typical social experience.

Later, I learned this is not the way this group tends to treat new people.  Fortunately, the circumstances present a rare opportunity to hear from someone familiar with the group who can comment upon the ways their behavior strayed from their normal patterns.  Mike, who has helped and supported this blog for years, has been drafted to offer up his observations.  I shall yield the floor to him, but I will reclaim it to discuss one factor I think contributes to the quality of my social experiences, which other events during my DC trip highlighted so glaringly that even the blind person noticed.