Laughing Through the Third Act: How Do You Learn to Take Yourself Less Seriously?
A funny thing happened on my way to retirement. I became a humor writer. It wasn’t part of some grand plan. Rather, it was a serendipitous occurrence born from the acute terror of not knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
No longer was I Dr. Susan, speech pathologist, adjunct professor, and consultant. The challenge of a full-time job had been replaced by the challenge of discovering my comfort zone in this new phase of my life.
I finally had the time to do all those things I always wanted to do – if I could only remember what they were. Salvation came in the form of a writing class for beginners. I had once been a good writer, and I wondered if I still had the stuff.
Jolly Goodness – It Was Still There!
It turned out I had a knack for creating humorous personal essays. In response to class assignments, I would turn inward, observing my own life with a comical eye.
I began writing about my marriage, about becoming an “older” woman, about friendships, the media, and about how, one summer, the birds ate my car. (The latter is a story for another day!)
Eventually, I created my own blog, where I continue to post my skewered takes on life, and have published two books. Who knew? So, move over Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, and Andy Rooney, and make some room for me!
In retrospect, I realized that humor had been an important tool for me even in my profession. As a practicing clinician, I worked in some pretty serious environments: hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes.
My clients were adults who had acquired neurological disorders – such as a stroke or Parkinson’s disease – which affected their communication abilities and, in some cases, their cognitive functioning.
Employing a light touch before the hard work began was an effective ice breaker serving to establish rapport and putting the client, as well as family members, at ease. I think I knew, without knowing, the potential for humor to make human connection.
Oh, the Joys of Aging!
I borrowed the title phrase “Third Act” from a Ted Talk delivered by Jane Fonda in which she uses the term to refer to the last three decades of life, and all of the possibilities, as well as the vulnerabilities, therein.
It is a time in one’s life when it’s so easy to be negative. We become concerned about our wrinkles, our graying hair, about the Buddha belly that suddenly appeared where a flat stomach used to be.
We dread bathing suit season. Hearing aids and cataract glasses are our latest fashion accessories. We feel more susceptible to illness; perhaps some of our friends have already succumbed. We fear we are no longer relevant. So, where’s the punchline?
And speaking of punchlines, I want to mention the comedian Brett Leake, a stand-up comic who has muscular dystrophy. He coined an expression that, for me, has become inspirational: “When life throws you a punch, make punchlines.” Well, I wish I’d come up with that one!
That’s Not Funny. Oh Yes, It Is!
There is a growing body of research on the role of laughter in healthy aging. Some of the benefits include:
- An improved disposition
- Reduction of tension
- Lowered anxiety
- Increased energy
- Enhanced creativity
- Greater coping ability and resilience
My weapon of choice for facing Third Stage challenges has been observational comedy. This type of humor pokes fun at everyday life, often by inflating the importance of trivial things or by observing the silliness of something that society accepts as normal.
And while I’m not suggesting that we all audition for Saturday Night Live, I’d like to suggest some pointers we can include in our everyday lives, along with some examples.
We all look at the world in a variety of ways, but nothing is seen if we don’t look. So, don’t minimize the power of observation.
Laugh at Yourself
Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take yourself less seriously is to talk about times when you took yourself too seriously.
Don’t Complain at Unfortunate Situations – Laugh at Them!
Look for the humor in a bad situation, and you will uncover the irony and absurdity of life. An example: I was recently involved in a fender bender where, fortunately, no one was hurt. But my car was badly damaged.
It was the other guy’s fault. No really, it was. He failed to observe a “Yield” sign. We were shaken up and inconvenienced, but while waiting for the police, I figured out a way to blame the entire thing on my husband! Writing about this helped to diffuse an otherwise upsetting situation.
Perspective Is a Key Factor
Keep things in perspective. Many situations in life are beyond our control – especially the behavior of other people.
Embrace the Power of Humor
Humor helps us look at our own imperfections, accept them, embrace them, and not take them so seriously. Another example: The outcome of my cataract surgery had good news and bad news. The good news: I could see better. The bad news: I could see better!
Use Humor as a Tool
Humor points out the absurdity of some situations and allows us to see them and ourselves in a new way.
Your sense of humor is one of the most potent tools you have for coping. Don’t let it abandon you when things go wrong. And always remember – the power of humor is no laughing matter!
How often do you laugh? Do you prefer to wine when you find yourself in a bad situation? How do you think things will turn out if you laugh instead? Please share a recent story that had you wondering whether to laugh or else!