I read an article today hypothesizing a dark and morbid sense of humor was a sign of higher intelligence citing an experiment led by Ulrike Willinger at the Medical University of Vienna. Participants were shown twelve cartoons depicting dark humor relating to suicide, violence, and other topics considered morbid. Participants reporting they appreciated the humor the most were found to have higher IQs and lower aggression.
I’m much more curious as to how a dark sense of humor might be a coping mechanism, as most of my colleagues share the ability to laugh at the perpetually traumatic as a means of disconnecting.
I bring this up, because I’ve noticed the common occurrence of social workers, psychologists, medical staff etc. expressing dark humor to combat the shock and depression associated with private knowledge of the worst in people. I find myself appreciating dark humor and telling jokes betrothed to the macabre, and it feels only natural in terms of coping with the constant exposure to the grisly situations of others.
I work in a field that requires working with children and families in horrific circumstances involving physical/emotional/sexual abuse and neglect. I reached the point years ago when the most gruesome of child abuse articles would disgust but no longer surprise. I’m honestly not surprised by anything one human can do to another due to my experience in this field.
This isn’t something unique to me. Every colleague seems to share the same affliction. Don’t get me wrong. We still have our moments of tearful and painful realization upon discovering the extent of another’s mental and physical traumas, but they are more often than not accompanied by comedy unsuitable for the dinner table.
You have to. You simply have to, or you won’t make it in this type of work. It will shatter your fragile, little mind. You have to find the perfect balance between empathy and humor. It helps others open up to you, it relieves the tension, and it helps you cope and not be haunted when you try to sleep at night. Isn’t that what comedy is best known for accomplishing; releasing tension?
Some people will never know the frustration of a woman crying on your shoulder with two black eyes (and bruises allowing you and everyone else with any sense to know she had been strangled with bare hands) telling you she is afraid for her life only for her to say, “Nothing happened. He just wasn’t himself, and we are going to work it out,” two weeks later. She stands in court and speaks as if you are the liar, and she downplays the fact that her spouse literally tried to murder her in an unjustifiable bout of rage. She decides to drop all of the charges and work on her marriage as if attempted murder is a normal occurrence in any healthy relationship. You smile, and you remain cordial just to maintain the bond that allows you to help her the moment she requests for the sake of her future and the future of her children, as you cannot force her to do anything at all. She writes you casually before Halloween to show you she found the perfect costume for herself.
It was a piñata.
Dear God, please forgive me and anyone else that understands this work for laughing about life imitating art…or is art imitating life? I still hope and pray it’s neither, but I’ll laugh at the Greek tragedy before me in the meantime, because what else can I do while I wait?