The words human, humility, and humor all derive from the Latin word humus, meaning soil or dirt, for a logical reason.
Man needs to remember his beginning and end, “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” in the familiar words heard on Ash Wednesday. Humility is the virtue that acknowledges man’s lowliness, weakness, fallibility, and sinfulness. The prideful in Dante’s Purgatory who consider themselves exalted suffer the punishment of carrying heavy rocks on their shoulders to make them stoop and cure the vice of self-glorification with the virtue of humility. Humor is the medicine that brings the all-knowing and all-powerful down to earth when they lose contact with reality or assume airs of superiority.
Chaucer tells the anecdote of the star-gazing philosopher lost in abstract thought until he falls in a ditch—a healthy reminder that he is not a pure spirit or angel without a body, but a mortal walking the earth. The fault of seriousness needs the medicine of laughter to restore sanity.
No Room for Fairy Tales
It is possible to take many things too seriously. Coaches and athletes can take winning too seriously (It’s only a game). The avaricious and the miserly who worship gold take money too seriously (It’s only metal or paper). Politicians can take elections and political power too seriously (They are not the salvation of the world). Scholars can take learning too seriously and presume that man is god and that human knowledge supersedes divine wisdom (“Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out,” Solomon states in Ecclesiastes).
The perfectionist takes rules too seriously, interprets them too literally, and applies them too rigidly. As Sir Toby Belch comments to the stiff, gravely pompous Malvolio, whose idea of propriety and punctilio allows for no mirth, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” The student can take grades too seriously at the expense of losing the joy of learning and missing the love of knowledge for its own sake. Excessive seriousness destroys perspective and balance.
Lightheartedness disappears when somber gravity dictates its oppressive rules, regulations, and caveats. Business comes before life and family. Work assumes importance in terms of salary and benefits rather than in terms of enjoyment, service and vocation. Making a million dollars holds greater priority than living in peace. Going to a prestigious college outweighs saving one’s soul.
In G. K. Chesterton’s famous remark, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” With fragile wings and delicate natures, the fairies come and go in folklore bringing gifts in the night as they do good by stealth. The airiness of the lighthearted leads to a playful imagination and lively intelligence that escape the ponderous dullness that Chesterton compares to stones: “The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its own nature go upwards, because fragility is force.”
The ponderous, like Dickens’ schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind who lives in Stone Lodge, reduce all knowledge to facts and scientific evidence with no room for fairy tales or nursery rhymes. He warns the pupils, “You are never to fancy” and “Never wonder.” Without this lightness of the fairies, angels, and birds, man’s mind stays dull and does not wonder or imagine; man’s spirit remains bound to the ephemeral and never flies or transcends beyond the here and now; man’s heart never soars to laughter or to a contemplation of God, beauty, truth, or love.
Expanding the Heart
Famous characters in literature who have this virtue are Robin Hood and his merry men who do not brood about money, victory, revenge, or legality. Howard Pyle’s version of the story forewarns the reader that a cheerful, fun-loving nature prepares him for the adventures of “jocund fellows” in the story: “You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourself up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Faery . . . these pages are not for you.”
The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream perform their revels and their “fairy favors” in the mystery of the night when the daytime realm of work does not conduct business. They frolic and prepare their delightful surprises in the secluded forest away from the business and politics of the court. While deadly seriousness stifles the spirit in the same way that the force of gravity pulls downward, sprightly lightheartedness expands the heart to go beyond the boundaries of the legal, the literal, and the material.
No one understands the morbidity and dangers of grim seriousness more than Izaak Walton. In his famous book on fishing, The Compleat Angler (1676), he praises all the benefits of his favorite recreation for the busy that live active lives without the benefit of leisure to contemplate, behold, and taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Walton contrasts the innocent mirth of the angler playing at his sport with the harried owner of a large estate burdened with several lawsuits. He distinguishes the contentment of fishermen, “meek quiet-spirited men,” from the restless activity of worldly men “tost in boisterous Seas” and struggling “in the vexatious World.” Without a sense of the airy spirit of the lighthearted, cares, fears, and world-weariness rob a person of peace, hope, and patience.
Immoderate seriousness produces symptoms like frantic busyness, intolerant fanaticism, scrupulous perfectionism, and neurotic compulsiveness. Therefore, as Chesterton concludes, “Seriousness is not a virtue” because it is a lapse or fall, “the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity.”
Like the physical law of gravity, the vice of seriousness leads below: “A man ‘falls’ into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky.”
Just as heavy objects thrown in the air will quickly fall, solemn seriousness ruins flights of inspiration and leaps into the higher world: “For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
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