Saturday, December 09, 2006

Why we laugh at Borat...and funerals

If you laugh at Borat, you’re not sick;
you’re just repressed.

Watching the new movie Borat is like fighting a losing battle to resist laughing at a funeral. Being someone who is guilty of that as well as laughing with oncology doctors on cancer wards and occasionally acting as the wrong ‘sic’ humored role model to my kids, Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie caused me to pause—as a specialist in emotional intelligence and neuroscience—and contemplate why.

Fortunately I have never been someone who was driven to tickling those who can’t stand to be tickled, nor have I ever attacked, ridiculed or humiliated the relatively decent, but ignorant people in the world (that Borat overflows with) who just don’t know any better and who would probably not learn to know better by such treatment. But I have had the fantasy of doing so.

For me and others that this battle to maintain self-control speaks to, too often many of us slide into a black and white mind set of thinking and believing that we are either in control or out of control. It seems to require more integrated and internalized wisdom than I can muster to accept into my DNA that most of life occurs in the “not in control” zone. The final score in a football contest result from each team reaching the end zone or kicking over the crossbars of the goal post, yet the entire game is played in the not in control 100 yard field in between. It’s the game, not that score that makes it worth watching.

For much of every day, most of us are besieged by responsibilities, obligations, risks that can turn into set backs if not disasters, and opportunities that can be missed whereupon we proceed to beat up on ourselves . All of these conspire to push us from a state of stress where we can hold onto our goals and develop inner fortitude past our internal tipping point into a state of distress, where our goal becomes finding relief. It is the seeking of that relief that drives us to go off diets, stop exercising, buy something we don’t need, procrastinate on something we should get done now, explode at a boss, friend or loved one or find some other means to get in our own way. It’s what pushes us to go postal and I don’t mean to go to the post office and wait in a long line for stamps.

It is also what causes us to not just go to see Borat (and before that “Old School” or the Austin Powers movies), but to read about going to see them (as I’m hoping you’ll do with this piece). Movies, television and fiction offer ways to deal with distress that are less destructive than going postal. By going to Borat and identifying with the main character as someone who gives into and even celebrates the impulses we merely imagine acting upon we experience something psychologists refer to as “mediated catharsis.” This is where someone who seems to be in control, bares their neck and reveals something that we quickly and deeply resonate with, but something that causes us to feel potentially out of control.

As they act out our fantasies and as they go either too far or even over the edge (as in both farcically funny or at the other extreme violent revenge movies), we feel relief and it sets the meter back so that we can go out and face the world and allow it to re-stress us for another day.

What this also says about us is that we are frequently caught up in a battle to stay in control, be functional, responsible, stressed and then distressed vs. letting go of control, feeling a release and relief, but then risking doing something destructive to our lives at large or at the very least our credibility.

A resolution to this is to realize and accept that at any given time, we are not single minded, but are made up of at least two minds and we need to give them both a place to live and breathe. That is why in matters of the world I try to stay in control, but in matters of the heart—and funny bone—I give it up. And that is also why I go to movies like Borat and laugh my head off.

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