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The disarming force of humour

  • 27 March 2023
Have you ever been caught in conversations about how to respond to people who ask for money on the street? I have often found them heavy and spiky. On one occasion the conversation had been heavy with moral principles and distinctions between different kinds of beggars, until a friend known for his good humour said that he had recently been approached on the street by a poorly dressed man who had asked him for a couple of dollars. He paused, and we pressed him: ‘What did you do?’, we asked. 

He answered, ‘I thought to myself, if I give him money he will only spend it on grog’. He paused again, and said, ‘And then I thought to myself, and if I keep the money I’ll only spend it on grog.  Ánother pause, and then he said, I gave  him some money’. We laughed, and the conversation lightened up.

I reflected later how intimately humour and humility are related. The conversation had gone nowhere because it was full of high principles that looked down at the people who begged for money as different. That ended in sententiousness. The storyteller saw the person who begged as his equal in weakness. His response was correspondingly one that recognised their flawed humanity and the call beyond abstract principle that it made on him.

We laughed because he brought us down to earth and freed us from the burden of superiority. Like the rain that comes after a hot and humid day and draws people outside to get soaked and laugh together, humour that asserts a shared earthiness frees.

I wonder whether this story speaks also to the many current conversations about banning and censoring books and excluding from parties, public life and memory people who have acted badly. The principles of what is acceptable and what is not, and how to respond to people who have behaved badly and hold vicious opinions are important. But when a conversation lacks humility and humour, can it end anywhere good? 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services. Main image: Getty images.