The Humor of Pain

This afternoon in the park, an inline skater did a stunt. He jumped up and landed on a slanted information display, stayed there for a moment, then jumped back down. Nothing unusual about that. Happens every day.

Suddenly I saw the event replayed in my mind's eye. He approaches, jumps, and lands. This time, though, the display panel breaks off, flipping the rider back onto the ground. Ow.

I know what my reaction to this would have been if I'd seen it really happen. Assuming the skater weren't seriously hurt, I would have burst out laughing. Strange, but true. Let me see if I can explain by giving another example from my college days.

One winter night, a friend (call him Chip) and I were on our way back from the campus center to the dorms. It had snowed a lot that week, then gotten warm the day before, then snowed again that day. As we headed back to our rooms, we passed tall mounds of snow that had been pushed up by snowplows. They were flat, vertical walls of newly fallen white. Just as we walked by them, Chip, who had an advanced belt in karate, wheeled, pulled back his arm, and let fly with a karate chop into the wall of snow.

In the moment between Chip letting fly and connecting, I realized what would happen. What looked like a wall of snow wasn't. The week's snow had been piled high earlier in the week, and it had melted in the warmth of the previous day. That day the temperature had dropped again, re-freezing the snow. The day's dusting of new snow covered what was now a wall of thick ice. Chip was unintentionally punching a wall of ice.

His punch happened so fast I didn't have time to shout a warning. It happened just as I realized. Chip connected -- full force -- with an ice wall. He yelped in pain. I couldn't help it; I burst out laughing. Not because he was in pain, of course. I was laughing because I saw someone do something reckless and bound to lead to pain, and I couldn't do anything. It was an almost cathartic laughter. I'm sure Freud and other psychologists would have a lot to say about it.

Chip didn't hurt himself, fortunately. And I stood there laughing like an idiot, which did not endear me to him.

So today the same thing (didn't) happen. But if it did, I'd laugh again. Not because someone hurt himself -- I'd rather no one did -- but because he did something foolish, and I didn't have time to warn him. Laughter seems to be my release in this situation.

So please remember this, if I start laughing after you've hurt yourself while spontaneously doing something foolish: I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing near you.


2001-08-24. I've just learned the word schadenfreude, which means the humor one feels at the misfortunes of others. While this is similar to the feeling I've described, it's not the same. The reason I laugh isn't the pain of others; rather, it's a response to a case of dramatic irony which occurs so quickly I have no chance to warn its victim.

That, at least, is my hope.

2002-01-19. I also hope that it was this feeling, not schadenfreude, that once drove my friend Steve into gales of laughter.

Last updated 19 January 2002
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons