“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”—Charlie Chaplin
To paraphrase the wise comedian, life is ironic—a paradox that sometimes makes us laugh and other times scream-cry like a colicky baby.
The notions of irony and wisdom have been married in the world of comedy since the beginning of time—like Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. That said, pairing the paradoxical with the thoughtful has only recently been addressed in the academic community. But initial research supports what comedians have known for decades—wisdom comes from an awareness of life’s contradictions, and these can be very amusing when looked at from afar.
Specifically, a paper published in Theory & Psychology last year introducing the notion that the act of aging might predispose individuals toward a more ironic stance on life than they had espoused during their younger years. What’s more, the increased irony that often accompanies this self-reflection might lead to increased wisdom via a fuller understanding of life’s complexities. Although much more empirical research is needed before the scholarly community fully embraces any causal link between aging, irony, and wisdom, I would say that Chaplin and Randall are probably on to something.
Anecdotally, I encountered this more than ever upon attending the funeral of a comedian friend of mine, Dan Ronan, who died recently. An individual ironically wise beyond his years, Dan channeled that wisdom into the art form of comedy.
During his life, he joked extensively onstage about his fear of death. In fact, most of the conversations I had with him addressed the notion of human mortality at some level. It was something he was very much afraid of—as many of us are. Ironically, his life ended prematurely, in part due to complications that arose from trying to quell those anxieties through self-medication. Nonetheless, through this ironic chain of events, I stumbled upon some of his wisdom that I would not have seen otherwise: an old e-mail he sent to one of his friends several years ago that was unearthed after his passing and posted online to be shared with his friends and family. Herein, in a late-night message sent with the simple subject line, “the future,” he delineates his thoughts on how to live life as a performing artist. And his wisdom goes like this:
The other day, I overhead a fellow improviser say, “These days, comedy is all self-promotion.” This is the predicament that faces us. We live in a time when the bar is constantly being lowered, and the standard for success is universally defined as monetary and fame-based. The love of craft, it seems, is dead; the desire to leave something lasting and unique, which may, by chance, benefit mankind intellectually or spiritually, has fallen wholly to the wayside, and we are faced on all sides by corporate globalization, which threatens to wipe true art from mainstream totally, as anything that inspires thought or feeling other than to sell products is totally useless to the organizations that run the world. Money is a trap, and fame is its whore cousin.
We should pursue with passion to bring quality and vision to our craft for the betterment and continued evolution of mankind, and let fame fall on us if it will. Fame should never be the goal, for in the age of Internet and self-promotion social experiment gone wrong that is Dane Cook, it seems that anyone who is marketable enough may become famous. I believe that true art stands the test of time, and at some point rises from obscurity, even if it is not fortunate enough for its creator to be during his lifetime. But alas, complaining about the hacks who prostitute their souls (which are an “object” for an entirely different discussion) for undeserved fame is both irresponsible and wrong. We can’t simply complain about them. We have to be better than them. We have to work. We only have one lifetime (something so few seem to take stock of) to create something worthy of being called beautiful. We only have a single lifetime, in fact, to do everything. And so I don’t think you’ll disagree with me when I say that there is no time to be tentative in our pursuits, or to worry about simple bits of tangible tradition (the college diploma and other such traditional signs of “success”). Our parents wish us to do certain things, and in their wishes they mean well, but living life based on the desire of one set of people, or one group of people, is a great waste of life indeed. There is no reason to waste time, and, in fact, it would be a crime to do so. And it will not be easy.
The institutions in our society (however far their boundaries now reach), in all their wisdom, call those of our like “losers” or “crazy,” as if it befits their need of keeping the population safely at their desks and in front of their televisions. It is very hard indeed to sell anything to one who is free, and unconcerned with material things that are not completely necessary for their survival and creation of art. The doctrine of these institutions trickle down to our families and friends. We are perceived as failures, as, in the conventional monetary sense, we may for a long time or forever be.
Education does not come through schools but through life experience, and reading. (The most important, most incredibly neglected form of mind expansion. People you and I know are actually proud not to read books, and even others less at fault will still be astonished to find out that someone does so of their own volition, and not simply at the behest of some educational institution.) I suppose what I am saying is that we have a single chance to do all that we want, and our existence is too finite for hesitancy. I hope I haven’t wasted your time on a tangent.
If Dan were alive today, I would tell him that he didn’t waste our time on this tangent. Ironically—or maybe not so ironically given the research—his profound understanding of life’s complexities has made us all the more wise. The only “waste” as I see it, is that his tangent could not go on longer.
Randall, WL. Aging, irony, and wisdom: on the narrative psychology of later life. Theory & Psychology (2013); 23(2): 164–183.