I’d like to think of myself as a happy person – one moved to frequent bouts of belly-aching laughter, embracing the life pulsing around me with a total abandon – but it’s not really my current reality… particularly not first thing in the morning. Enneagram Type Ones (‘The Reformer/Perfectionist’) aren’t really known for their ability to let loose and go with the flow. We “prefer what is practical, grounded and stable and avoid appearing silly or frivolous to others” and can be “self-righteous, overly strict and rigid”. Not really the building blocks of humour, you could say.
Too often the minutiae of life consumes me. To-do lists, sticky cupboard doors, piles of artwork waiting to be sorted and photographed, washing that needs to be soaked, onions lying dormant on a chopping board. I channel my energies into ‘getting through’ the tasks, sternly issuing children into bed… only to walk out from easing the last door shut and wonder ‘what was the rush?’
When Eli was barely one – Hudson already making his presence known from the inside – I remember scouring websites with a fervour wondering how on earth I was going to manage the juggle of another human being. A mere sentence, offered by a mother of five, stuck with me: ‘Approach life with creativity, patience and a sense of humour.’
Humour is easy to let slide in the chaos of everyday life. Bubbling frustration often erupts instead, the negativity of life sticking like velcro to an already worn psyche. I sure don’t feel like laughing when the bowl of weet-bix lands face down on the floor. And yet… there is something cathartic in that moment before the lava flows – if the burst of adrenaline is channelled to laughter instead. I am by no means an expert on this (merely a fumbling novice, in fact) but I am beginning to notice that the response of mirth is coming more easily.
“Please don’t swing the bread stick around, Eli”. I cautioned as I strode with purpose towards the papery onions piled high in mounds. Turning my attention to the French shallots, I carefully began to turn over and select spheres the size of a cherry.
“Uh oh.” The sound came from behind me and I turned to see an empty cellophane casing in Eli’s guilty hands, the crunchy baton now lying forlornly on the floor. I paused. An older, white-haired woman stared at us with a look of slight horror. I caught her eye and involuntarily smiled. The fog cleared and she gave a short bark of a laugh in spite of herself. Retrieving the evidence, I handed it with sincere apologies to a nearby attendant, who seemed entirely nonplussed by the events. A penitent Eli received a brief lecture about not using wheat as a weapon, but our day was hardly derailed or impeded by the experience.
It would not take much for me to rewrite the story as it inevitably would have played out mere months ago. A spike of shame at the disapproving glance, self-loathing for not controlling my child at all times, rage at the fact that I had just told Eli not to do something and he still did it. He would have weathered the storm with heavy eyes, staggering under the weight of the redirected discomfort. Eventually I would have come to my senses and apologised, but not before feeling morosely the disappointment of losing control over my children and emotions.
So what is the secret, you may ask? How am I suddenly able to laugh in the midst of an embarrassing situation that would have had me careening into all the blockades only a little while ago?
It may not surprise you to learn that the Enneagram* is part of the answer! If you have already found out your type you may have been baffled by the references to ‘arrows’. Basically, the arrow system shows how your type responds in periods of either growth or stress. If you move to the ‘stress point’ you will be frustrated and impeded. If you move towards the ‘security point’ you will thrive and find satisfaction. (See here for a more comprehensive explanation).
For me, my positive direction is to the Type Seven or ‘The Entertainer’. I happen to have an embodied example of this character in Hudson and he inspires (and frustrates) me daily in his ability to shake off negativity and embrace life to the full. Remarkably, I do find that when I model my approach on Hudson’s zest for life and carefree attitude I am able to be more spontaneous and fun to be around.
Also, more broadly, I am coming to understand how much control we actually have over our emotional responses. A recent podcast interview with Dr James Doty floored me with his story of discovering as an unhappy teenager that he could veer off the seemingly inevitable course towards juvenile delinquency towards a fascination of the brain and ultimately the position of Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. It turns out that what seems to be ingrained and unalterable are merely neural pathways that are well-travelled. Rage roars down the freeway with the windows open because our mind knows that path as familiar. When we choose humour as our response, it feels forced at first – like trying on new shoes that rub a little and make us walk funny, but before long we can’t imagine wearing another pair.
In his TED talk ‘The Surprising Science of Happiness‘, Dan Gilbert demonstrates that there are two types of happiness – natural happiness as the response when you get what you wanted, and synthetic happiness as the manufactured reaction when we don’t get what we want but we see the positive anyway. Anyone can experience happiness in the first category, but it takes a bit more creativity to synthesise our reactions when things don’t go to plan. Gilbert reveals a number of tricks to strengthening our ‘psychological immune system’ as well as what the natural enemies of synthetic happiness are (which aren’t at all what I expected). Turns out that freedom of choice and the power to change our minds are death knells for learning to be happy in spite of our lot.
A man who is no stranger to orchestrated happiness – having been born with one disfigured arm then losing the use of the healthy arm in a nearly fatal motorcycle accident years later – is Kevin Kling. Humour to him is one of the main weapons in his arsenal. In a recent On Being podcast entitled ‘The Losses and Laughter We Grow Into‘, he quotes “‘You can survive anything with sense of humor and sense of self.’ And our stories give us both of those. Laughter is the same thing. When you’re laughing at something, it can’t control you.” I love that.
Humour and storytelling are inextricably intertwined. I have a choice in each situation as to what narrative I’m sticking to – whether my entire schedule was just derailed because we are now late for Kinder, or whether running to the door is the perfect time to play the ‘tickle game’ when little feet stray onto the cracks in the pavement. Whether to come down hard on the toilet humour or have a little giggle when one brother just called the other a ‘poopadum’.
Children – when they aren’t seizing your unrealistic expectations and crushing them in an insistent grip – are exceptional at altering perspective and pointing to joy. A few nights ago, Eli and I lay in the dark looking back on the day. “What was your high point?” I asked, beginning to list a few of the things we did. He grew impatient and informed me that I had already guessed it. “The Scary Shark game?” I responded dubiously. Turns out that doing the vacuuming (and chasing shrieking children along the way) produced more than dust-free floors. (I can’t imagine how our family expedition that night of Pokemon Go hunting didn’t make the top category, but whatever.)
Humour. It is slowly becoming my choice, my story, a way of being. A way to find the joy and meaning in moments that previously slipped in silent scream through my tightly clenched fingers.
I’m learning to dance, in spite of everything failing to line up in a neat row. To find the ‘beauty wrapped in the grotesque’ as Kevin Kling writes in his poem, ‘Tickled Pink‘:
“Every breath has a possibility of a laugh, a cry, a story, a song. Every conversation is an exchange of spirit, the words flowing bitter or sweet over the tongue. Every scar is a monument to a battle survived. Now when you’re born into loss, you grow from it. But when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it. A slow move to an embrace, an embrace that leaves you holding tight the beauty wrapped in the grotesque, an embrace that becomes a dance, a new dance, a dance of pink.”
*Note: If the Enneagram confuses you, you are not alone! When I was first introduced to the Enneagram, the complex descriptions of ‘wings’ and ‘arrows’ completely baffled me, but I am now beginning to understand more fully the profundity of not only the ‘types’ but the entire system and its capacity to explain and untangle the quirks of human beings and the desires that motivate us. I love chatting about this stuff, so feel free to get in touch!
This piece is part of an exploration of monthly themes springing out of my resolutions for this year.