“The worst flaw about anyone is if they don’t have a sense of humor, especially about themselves.”
I’ve heard this in a number of situations as an adult, and sometimes I let it go because it’s too complicated to explain. But these essays are for me to talk at length about things that are complicated, so here we go.
I spent a lot of time as a child and even teenager being laughed at by people who wouldn’t explain what I had done that deserved mockery, or telling me and then insisting that whatever unspoken social rule I’d broken made me disgusting and unworthy of any friendship ever again. I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that the sound of laughter, even as an adult, makes me tense, afraid that it will be directed at me, afraid that people who I thought were my friends in the past would now reject me and refuse to speak to me and I would, once again, have no one at all to sit with at lunch and as a result would have to take my food out to roam the outskirts of the schoolyard while eating my sandwich and apple.
Teenage Mette learned to laugh as a reflex to other people laughing. It was a disguise, social camouflage, to protect me from further bullying. It was a way to try to obfuscate the reality that my family didn’t have money for the “right clothes” — even when we lived in an affluent neighborhood. I didn’t get to listen to the radio at home, so I didn’t know the songs that I was supposed to know. I was often forbidden from watching regular television shows, or there were long periods when my father refused to replace the television he’d kicked in when he was in one of his rages. I didn’t know the stuff I was supposed to know to get the jokes I was supposed to get.
Laughter to me still often feels like a hostage situation. I have to laugh or there’s going to be a high cost to pay. It might be death to this social group if I admit that I don’t find this thing funny, or that I have no idea what they’re referencing. Laughter is a gun held to my head, demanding I laugh along. And I know how to laugh along. I do. But it’s a huge effort. It feels like I’m never allowed to be myself, to ask the questions I want to ask to figure out what’s really going on, or to point out the underlying misogyny or racism in the joke. I know I’m a downer. I know that it’s not what you’re supposed to do in a social situation.
Why can’t I just laugh like everyone else?
Well, I can laugh. I can even laugh about myself. But only when I feel safe. And it turns out that I don’t feel safe very often. And even when I think I’m safe, I wonder afterwards if I was really the butt of the joke, after all, and was just too stupid to figure it out.
Then there are the times when I do actually make a joke that’s funny and other people get it. It’s rare, but it happens. I tend to make jokes that follow certain patterns, turning expectations on the head. I try not to be mean, but that often means the laughter is a little gentler, a little lighter. I don’t often trust that I’ve made a good joke even when other people laugh. Why would I? They might have felt like I put a gun to their heads when I told a joke. They might feel forced to laugh. People who are good friends find out how insecure I am about my jokes because they tell me I’m funny and I remind them that I’m not and never have been and that I don’t believe people when they tell me I’ve made a joke. It’s probably a mistake. I’m not funny, you see. I’m just the butt of the jokes.
So do I have a sense of humor? Am I that worst, most unbearable kind of person in a social situation, who can’t laugh at herself? The older I get, the more I see the trauma of my autistic social upbringing, the more I try to honor my own pain, the less I will laugh at anything just because it is required — and especially not at myself.