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Nature has symbols for her nobler joys,
Her nobler sorrows. Who had dared foretell
That only man, by some sad mockery,
Should learn to laugh who learns that he must die?
-- Wilfred Scawen Blunt
I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.
-- Woody Allen
Not long ago, a good friend of mine, about twenty years my junior, wrote to me saying that he was already fretting about getting older:
I have been thinking of you off and on again these days, pondering whether I should take you as my role model for how to deal with getting older. I am 61 now and quite often annoyed about the symptoms of getting older, while you often wrote things like: "There is still a lot I can be grateful for" and other encouraging things.
“Ah, my early sixties,” I thought wistfully, “I was in my prime then.” Well, all right, I was exaggerating, of course.
Sub-prime was more like it, I suppose, but nevertheless for me, in retrospect, during that period of my life I was still at the top of my game, as I wrote to my friend:
Getting older is hard, and I don’t know exactly or even vaguely what’s going on in your life now, but my sixties were one of my best decades — and, hopefully, it can be one for you, too. I am certainly not anyone’s role model for anything, but in my view, it helps to be grateful for every small blessing, to be patient (not my strong suit) in times of adversity, and to have compassion for oneself, no matter what the circumstances. There is really only one problem — the refusal to accept what is. We all have this problem, of course. Living in a body, especially when one is older, can be a struggle, a drag, and often painful. That’s life. What has helped me is trying to have a sense of humor about it and trying, hard as it is, not to take oneself or one’s troubles too seriously.
Indeed, the older I’ve become, the more important having a sense of humor has been to me in dealing, not only with the indignities of aging, but just as much with the prospect that death itself may be just around the corner. In fact, in my last book (in surely a double sense), which I puckishly entitled Confessions of a Humorist Manqué, I finally decided to give voice to my humorist side that now seemed to be seeking some form of expression before it was too late to express anything at all. And at the same time, I also drew on my tribal origins in admittedly a somewhat antic fashion. Here’s a slightly edited version of how it began:
Jews are funny.
I am a Jew.
Ergo: I am funny.
Well, I may be funny, but I also know that’s a slippery syllogism, or as we used to say behind our teacher’s back, a sillygism. After all, it doesn’t say All Jews are funny. I could be the rare exception. By the time you finish this book, assuming you get past this introduction, you can render your verdict.
But consider my background. I am old enough to have grown up listening to Jewish comics on the radio. (Do you remember radios or at least remember hearing about them? They were very popular in my day along with slide rules.) Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, for example, and Groucho Marx, of course, or in the early days of television, Milton Berle (Uncle Milty!), Sid Caesar, Amos ‘n Andy. (All right, they weren’t all Jewish.) Most kids grow up wishing they could be football quarterbacks or well-healed thugs wearing shades and Armani suits. Me? I grew up wishing I could be Woody Allen, only better looking.
Anyway, when I was a kid, I had a reputation for being the quickest quipper in the West. For a while, some people even thought I had Tourette’s. But no such luck. Besides, I soon found that being King of the Yock Hill didn’t get you the girls. They just tended to look at you pityingly and then went for the nearest jock. So I was obliged to recess my tongue and devote it to licking the crumbs off my bagels.
Nevertheless, in high school I retained enough of my humor to be voted “class wit.” (This is true. I still have my plaque. That is not true.) These days, of course, as I decline into the early stages of dementia, people tend to refer to me as a halfwit (okay, I know that’s a lame joke, but what do you expect from a lamebrain?) But I think it’s in the genes, anyway, because my son, Dave, recently told me that in high school, he was voted “class clown.” It runs in the family, I tell you, it’s tribal, it’s tradition! (Think Tevye.)
[In fact, although Jews constitute only about 2.5% of the American population, they account for about 70% of comedians.]
Speaking seriously for a moment (I promise it won’t last), in my life as a professor and author, I have spent much of it writing books about seemingly grim and morbid subjects, such as what it’s like to die (it’s not as bad as you think) or what it’s like to be a Palestinian living in Israel or the West Bank (it’s as bad as you think) -- books that I hoped would educate and edify my readers, maybe even enthrall them if they were to read about what people actually do report when they come close to death, but don’t get around to it. But I have never written a book like this one whose main purpose is to entertain. But if not now, when?
I mean, in this dark and dysphoric age in the reign of Donald I, when the world seems to be going to hell, anyway, maybe what we need is not love, more love, but laughter, more laughter. At least in the gathering shadows of our time, it is one way to keep our sunny side, up, up, before we go back to putting our heads in the sand or spending our time looking to join the local opioid club.
It also helps in dealing with aging, and, as I will illustrate shortly, even more when one is facing imminent death. But first, this is what I also sent to my sixty-one-year old friend who was kvetching about aging:
Ken’s Rules for Aging (and Living)
But in these essays, we are mostly concerned not with aging as such, but with living in the shadow of approaching death. Here, too, however, humor in the face of death, even especially of imminent death, is perhaps the best way, literally, to have the last laugh.
Consider, for example, these humorous bon mots from some famous people who were about to die:
The French poet, Paul Verlaine, when he heard a friend whisper, “he is dying,” said: “Don’t sole the dead man’s shoes yet.”
Another famous poet, also famous for his prodigious drinking, Dylan Thomas, said: “I’ve had eighteen whiskeys. I think that’s the record.”
The novelist, W. Somerset Maugham: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”
The Hollywood impresario, Wilson Mizner, to his doctor:
“Well, doc, I guess this is the main event!” And then to a priest: “Why should I talk to you? I’ve just been talking to your boss.”
I’ve culled these examples from a delightful little book called Famous Last Words and Tombstone Humor by Gyles Brandreth.
But my prime example of how to deal with imminent death with humor and cheerfulness comes from the great Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume. Hume, during his lifetime, was well known for his anti-religious views and, like that list of famous atheists I cited in an earlier installment of this series, his atheism led him to be convinced that the idea of a personal afterlife was pure poppycock. No religious consolation for this man as he approached death, only his robust cheerfulness and unquenchable sense of humor.
There are many testimonies to this effect at this end point in his life, including one from his great good friend, Adam Smith, but here I will quote somewhat extensively from an account left to us by his literary executor, William Strahan, who was with him toward the very end of Hume’s life:
His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, and the most perfect complacency and resignation. Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. ‘I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmondstone,’ said Doctor Dundas to him one day, ‘that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovery.’ ‘Doctor,’ said he, ‘as I believe you would not choose to tell anything but the truth, you had better tell him that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’…
Strahan also mentions at length a conversation he had with Hume in which the latter made a number of amusing remarks about an imagined encounter with Charon, the mythical Greek fellow who is charged to ferry the dead across the river Styx to Hades. At the end of these witty remarks, Hume said:
“Have a little patience, good Charon. I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.“
What a wonder and wonderful man was David Hume who provides such an impressive example of how to go about dying! Of course, our circumstances as well as our characters may prevent us from emulating him when our time comes, but I can only hope when I am no longer waiting to die but am about to, I will be able to be as cheerful and good-humored as Hume was.
But unlike Hume, who did not have the advantage of knowing anything about modern research into near-death experiences, when I go to my death, I will go convinced that my end will not result in my personal extinction but in my absorption into the world radiant Light and all-encompassing unconditional love that so many near-death experiencers have encountered when they pass temporarily into the realm beyond this life. And in entering into that realm, they often report being greeted by what Raymond Moody called in his ground-breaking book on NDEs, Life After Life, ”a being of light.” It is often this being who helps the individual to review his or her life. And, guess what, even here humor can be present.
In fact, it was Moody who first drew our attention to this surprising facet of NDEs. Here’s just one small snippet to illustrate this point from one of the persons Moody interviewed for his book:
Now, I think that the voice that was talking to me actually realized that I wasn’t ready to die. You know, it was just kind of testing me more than anything else. Yet, from the moment the light spoke to me, I felt really good – secure and loved. The love which came from it is just unimaginable, indescribable. It was a fun person to be with! And it had a sense of humor, too – definitely!
I think David Hume would have felt quite at home there, after getting over his initial surprise, don’t you?
In my own work, at least in my lectures and classes, if not always in my books on NDEs, I have also tried to strike a humorous tone at times in order to suggest that death, too, can have its funny side. One way I’ve sometimes done this is by concluding my lectures with a song I once wrote, “The NDE Blues.”
Since I had a pretty good singing voice for most of my life (though now I can only croon), I would warble it on all solemn near-death occasions, such as at our meetings of our NDE organization, The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Or at the end of my NDE course at the university. Sometimes I would impulsively sing it at conferences at the end of one of my talks. In Prague, at a big international transpersonal psychology conference, I sang it before an audience of 1500 people and got a standing ovation. Another time, visiting Elisabeth Kubler-Ross at her farm in Virginia, I sang it to her; she was amused. And once when I met the famous American folk singer, Pete Seeger, I sang it to him; he looked blank — didn’t understand what the hell it was about, I guess.
It’s sung to the old Gene Autry theme song, “Back in the Saddle,” and here are the words. Try it.
I'm out of my body at last
Seein' my future and my past
Floating through the tunnel now,
I look around say, “oh wow!”
It’s so peaceful here,
I don’t feel no kind of fear.”
Just driftin’ and singin' my song
Oh Lord, why's this tunnel so long?
But what's that ahead of me?
Is that a golden light I see?
The face of God shines through
And I’m headin’ straight for you
(In a basso profundo, as befits God)
My son, you have much work to do
And your family and friends need you, too
So I'm sending you back
One more chance to get on track
You'll come to me later
(Ritardando) On my cosmic elevator
(In a natural but awed voice)
I'm back in my body again,
Wonderin’ what happened just then
Was that the Lord above
Did I just imagine all that love?
I reckon I'll know one day for sure
(Ritardando) I reckon I'll know one day for sure
[Da-dum (dominant-tonic) on the guitar….]
Finally, to conclude this foray into how we can use humor to defuse the fear of death, I’d like quote a little spoof I wrote up a few years ago that perhaps I should have entitled “A Change of Heart,” but I just called it Metamorphosis. It’s not really about an NDE as such, but about another kind of experience that leads to a similar transformation in outlook. It concerns a certain well-known politician who was then very much in the news, but you will certainly remember him. Here it is...
One morning, two days after his heart transplant operation, Dick Cheney awoke from a pleasant dream feeling distinctly odd. For one thing, he was smiling.
His daughter, Mary, also noticed that there was something strange about her father.
She calls it to the attention of her mother.
“Mom, there is something distinctly odd about dad this morning.”
“What do you mean,” Lynne asks, looking puzzled.
“Well, for one thing, you know how dad always looks dour in the morning, as if life is a pain and why does he have to bother being pleasant.”
“Well, that’s just your father, darling.”
“I know that, mom. But this is different. Dad looked positively radiant this morning.”
“Hmm, that is distinctly odd,” Lynne agrees.
“But that’s not all,” Mary continues. “What really was strange was what he was saying.”
“Mary, I’m in a hurry this morning. You know how angry your father gets when I don’t have his eggs ready for him. Please get to the point.”
“OK, mom, it was about Obama.”
“He likes him now.”
“He likes him. He thinks he’s been wrong about him all this time.”
“Mary, I have no time for jokes. Now, really, I have to get to the kitchen.”
“I’m not kidding, mom. If you don’t believe me, ask him yourself.”
“Dick, how are you feeling this morning, dear?”
“Couldn’t be better.” (Beaming) “I’m a new man!”
“You look well, dear. I even notice that snarl -- er, I mean, that little mouth tic of yours is absent today. Ah, Dick, I was wondering – Mary said you were talking about Obama this morning.”
“Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. You know, Lynne, I really think I’ve misjudged the man. I mean, he’s not such a bad fellow. And, you know something else, Biden was right. For a black man, he is very clean and uncommonly articulate. You gotta give him that.”
“Dick, what are you saying!”
“I dunno, Lynne, it’s just something that I feel. I think when I’m up and about we should invite him and Michelle over for dinner. Maybe we can make amends.”
“Dick, I’m calling your cardiologist. I think the drugs that they’ve given you to prevent rejection must be making you delusional. I’m worried about you, honey. You’re not yourself.”
“Balderdash, Lynne, I haven’t felt this well and this clear-headed in years. It’s like I’ve just woken up from a bad dream – except my dreams this morning were very pleasant.”
Mrs. Cheney looks ashen-faced.
“And another thing,” Cheney says. “This thing about Mary, you know, her...”
“Please don’t bring that up, Dick.”
“No, really, Lynne. I’m proud she’s gay, and I’ve also been thinking she’s right about same-sex marriage. I don’t know what I was thinking before. I must have been bamboozled by all those rightwing nuts and those Tea Party crazies.”
“Dick, those are your people. How could you be talking this way!”
Cheney continues to beam. His mind is elsewhere, a beatific smile of satisfaction on his face.
“Doctor, I need to talk with you.” Mrs. Cheney is talking on the phone, which she cannot hold steadily. Her hand is shaking too much.
“Of course, it’s about Dick. Doctor, he is talking gibberish this morning. I mean, he is actually talking like a Democrat!”
“You don’t think it’s the drugs? But what else could it be?”
Mrs. Cheney pauses, and then she has an idea.
“Doctor, I know we are not supposed to know the identity of Dick’s donor, but do you think….”
There is a long pause.
“I know it is against the rules, but doctor, this is the Vice-President we are talking about, and he is a very sick man, and I don’t mean just physically!”
“All right, I’ll wait….”
A few minutes pass. Mrs. Cheney is very agitated.
The doctor comes back on the phone.
Mrs. Cheney listens with stupefaction.
Then she faints.
Mary, hearing a noise, rushes in, sees that her mother has now staggered to her feet and is sitting, dazed, in a chair, her eyes glassy.
She picks up the phone.
“A teen-aged black boy. From Chicago?”
Do you think I might have a future as a satirist while waiting to die?
Laughter is not only an ally in facing death, but it is your friend if you should, for whatever misguided reason, want to live a long life. Consider this baker’s dozen (though incomplete) list of famous comedians who have lived into their nineties or beyond:
Prof. Irwin Corey – 102
George Burns – 100
Bob Hope – 100
Alan Young – 96
Carl Reiner – 95
Phyllis Diller – 95
Milton Berle – 93
Bob Elliott – 92
Shelley Berman – 92
Sid Caesar – 91
Jerry Lewis – 91
Mel Brooks – 91
Don Rickles – 90
Of course, there was Fred Allen who died at 61, but was he really that funny? Perhaps drollery doesn’t conduce to a long life. It may also help if you’re Jewish.
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
Learn more about Kenneth Ring: