A beautiful Zen story goes – There is a fellow walking in the wilderness when, all of a sudden, a roaring tiger appears from the bushes and starts to go after the man. He runs toward the edge of a ravine, but the tiger is getting closer, so the man jumps into the gorge. Luckily, he manages to hold on to a thin branch growing in the steep wall of the ravine; hanging there, he looks down and sees another tiger growling from the bottom of the gorge. A mouse appears from a crack in the rocks and starts to gnaw at the branch. The man looks up at the roaring tiger on the edge of the canyon, down to the tiger at the bottom, and the mouse gnawing the branch. There is a strawberry plant growing next to the branch. With his free hand, he picks a fruit…how wonderful the strawberry tastes!
In spite of the iffy predicament, the taste of the strawberry doesn’t change. The story is about awareness and being in the “here and now,” but it is also a story about humor and the capacity to look with wittiness and irony at the absurdity of our human condition, no matter what circumstances we are in.
Sense of humor is probably one of the most precious gifts bestowed upon humanity. A good sense of humor is not just the capacity to laugh at any silly joke, to lightly jest at any situation, or to pull a childish prank on someone. A good sense of humor starts with the capability to laugh and joke about oneself in spite of what we are or what we think we are, in spite of what we represent. We tend to be deeply identified with our job, social class, religious belief, or country. We build such a strong and serious ego around whimsical, silly, and temporary things that we lose the ability to see the “big picture” and to be amused by the precariousness, frailness, and mysteriousness of Life.
When we lose our sense of humor, we lose our capacity to assess reality as it is. We diminish our creative ability, and most sadly of all, we reduce our freedom. The Ego in itself is a survival tool, an instrument very much needed by an individual in order to handle life as a human being. Unfortunately, the line that defines the “self” perceived through the Ego and our “true self” is very thin, and the equilibrium between the two is very precarious. Unfortunately, the Ego doesn’t seem to possess a good sense of humor. When this delicate balance is broken, we start to identify with the Ego. By doing so, we cage ourselves. However, pure identification with the Ego is not very stable, and the risk is to have too many unsettling doubts about which “self” this Ego represents; therefore, we start to reinforce the “cage” by building religious beliefs, doctrines, and social statuses. We end up in such strong enclosures with serious and unbreakable walls.
If we look at the big cages imprisoning the majority of the human population, such as religion or social classes, we notice that “the common denominator” of them all is a lack of humor. Anyway we look at it—either to the big, shared cages or to the little, personal boxes—the behavioral pattern is similar: the lack of humor persists and the recovery of that quality rests on the ability to laugh at ourselves. We often build such strong fortresses that we feel too helpless and incapable of finding a way out. We have to look for and find a path that leads us to our lost freedom, yet no path is free from traps and obstacles.
Only when we finally smile at the incongruity of our own “serious” life, only then can we finally reclaim our natural freedom and embrace the fullness of life.