Laughter unlearned

[The following are my liner notes from my first solo violin album, “When the Violin” which was released earlier this summer.]

The writer David Whyte says that humiliation — the public unveiling of our humble humanity — is the pathway to true evolution. The ego-shell of the former self shatters into a new self-knowing, often in the form of pain. But time passes, and we find ourselves laughing at a past failure: “can you believe I did that?”

Vulnerability is the humus of our humanity, the compost of our past failures metabolized into a new way to be in the world. A rueful laugh births a new story, a new Self. What better prayer could there be, but laughter itself?

I love stand-up comedy. I wonder if it’s because I’m strangely attracted to seeing my innermost secrets and longings publicly embodied by a lone performer onstage, while I sit in the safe dark vantage of the audience. There is an attraction to seeing that inner shadow made real in the body of another. As everyone in the audience watches and laughs at the unveiling of a fragile or vulnerable part of myself, I watch and laugh. I learn to see — and perhaps laugh at — myself.

We need to see the most fragile and vulnerable parts of ourselves. We need to be confronted with what scares us, what thrills us, what makes us remember how to feel. Perhaps if we see our own fragility and humanity, we’ll be less likely to demonize that fragility in others. Perhaps we’ll be more likely to know that all of us are grappling with some kind of demon.

We need the painstaking labor of the performer to articulate the murkiness of our inner lives. Their labor becomes a conduit for the realization of something we — the audience — thought was a private pain, a vindictive joy, a shameful secret to be lost to memory. Now, we know someone else felt that, too. Someone took the time to be broken, and remade, by that feeling. Someone else knew that that story was important — too important — to ignore.

How might we reclaim what we have lost — or what we think we have lost — and write a new story?

The performer is a channel for that story. That story — first private, then communal — flows through them, becomes them, lives in and through them. Ultimately, the performer — that human bridge — gives that story back as an offering. Artists of all kinds remind us that we’re not alone in our feelings.