Memes Were Made for This

Our stern and disappointed chemistry teacher turned back toward the board, flustered that our class wasn’t grasping her presentation of stoichiometry. It was then that my best friend dropped the hilarious, tiny piece of crumpled paper—a tasty bit of witty manna—on my desk. This friend was nothing if not reliable. 

The day I lost the election to the most popular girl in school, when the boy didn’t like me back, the two weeks I missed sizable quantities of schoolwork while home with mono—my friend could have taught a masterclass in diffusing stress with levity. Perfectly themed, non-malicious, and always much needed, her impeccably timed humor got me through high school with most of my sanity still intact.

Of course we didn’t understand or appreciate the fullness of her gifting—we were simply teenagers doing our best to navigate the horrors of high school. But these days, as the memes fly, I find myself thinking back to this friend and wondering at her mastery of comedic timing, attempting to decipher how I can do the same and bring relief to others to help them cope. 

While this time of uncertainty, suffering, and loneliness is no laughing matter, maintaining healthy tension between seriousness and laughing—at yourself and with others—is critical to promoting mental and spiritual wellness. A joyful heart is indeed good medicine (Prov. 17:22). Unfortunately the Church isn’t exactly known for its ability to employ humor redemptively, so the question is more poignant than ever: How can we harness the evident power of humor during dark times? And further, how can we use it to encourage the Body and to winsomely interact with unbelievers, for the glory of Christ?

Scooped by Academia

It turns out the use of humor in coping is an entire field of study. I spoke to communication studies professor Dr. Ashley George about this. She cited a component of healthy living that researchers call companionship support, of which humor is a subsection. She said, “We need this sense of companionship when experiencing something difficult. We need to laugh. We need to engage in activities that can offer brief distraction or a focus on positivity when life is unsettling.” It’s not just me—science shows we all need to laugh when life’s heaviness and frailty collide! 

Psychology professor Dr. Thomas Ford, who studies the effectiveness of different types of humor in regard to coping, says that humor in these days is not necessarily poorly-timed or inappropriate, but actually has benefits in fighting anxiety and depression: 

I think it’s very healthy to joke about the coronavirus. Humor invites us to reframe those stressors playfully and non-seriously, providing a way for us to see them as less threatening and scary, which consequently mitigates, at least momentarily, the experience of emotional distress.1

Recognizing that humor buoys the heart, here are three considerations for the believer longing to bring relief to troubled and anxious loved ones, and ourselves:

1. Allow for the Odd Bedfellows

Laughter is inextricably linked to sorrow. Scripture holds both joy and sorrow in regular tension (see Eccl. 3:1–8; Matt. 5:11–12; 2 Cor. 6:10). Plato himself surmised that humor was the mixture of pleasure and pain. These are the days to allow hilarity and sorrow to hold hands and look awkward. You are not likely to find yourself alone if you laugh even though it may feel completely inappropriate. (Of course I don’t mean laughing at, but rather laughing with, in community.) 

Speechwriter Elaine Bennett says that the recipe for dark times is lots of seriousness with a dollop of self-deprecating humor.2 For the believer, rejoicing is an act of defiance against evil. It’s a raised fist that claims Christ’s ultimate rule and reign over every sadness. We know the end of the story, that the grave is indeed undone, and we are counted as victors alongside our brother, Jesus, in whom we are promised that nothing can separate us from the love and purposes of God (Rom. 8:38–39).

2. We’re in the Ridiculous Together

I find myself wanting to regularly self-justify to my children, No, really—mama’s not crazy—I promise the whole world has to stay away from other people. And no wasting food. The memes tell the story: these days many people find regular aspects of everyday living totally preposterous, and that in itself is a hugely unifying quality. In Dr. Ford’s words, “Some widespread reactions—panic reactions—to the crisis (e.g., hoarding toilet paper) seem silly, if not ridiculous. There’s widespread appeal in humor that mocks them.” 

Prolific corona-memes actually remind us that while circumstances are not a joke, we can maintain our sense of humor as we obey seemingly ridiculous requests alongside one another. So, the next time you’re on the receiving end of a tasty meme, ask yourself if it’s tacky or distasteful or dishonoring to God or others—and if not, think of the last distressed person you connected with and send it along. Now, more than ever, those little comedy packets may be just the zing to tamp down panic waves in another person.

3. Laughter as the Signpost to Control

From the personal jokes and texts I’ve been on the receiving end of, it seems self-enhancing humor is the order of the day. Dr. Ford defines this type as that which “uses humor to enhance or maintain positive psychological well-being and distance a person from adversity.” In a 2017 study, Dr. Ford and his students discovered that those who trivialize an immediate stressor are especially effective at mitigating the negative effects of momentary stressors on overall anxiety levels. In other words, good-natured laughter at the stressor removes its sting. 

Now that sounds familiar: “Oh death, where is your sting” (Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:55).

Self-enhancing humor—the healthiest form of hilarity according to the work of Dr. Ford and his colleagues—demonstrates a deep settling of the truth that we are not ultimately in control of life and circumstances. It begs the question, Who is?

Believer in Jesus, we know the answer. Perhaps we have been given a gift of free time to engage in conversation with a frightened and hurting world. For when everything and everyone is shouting, relief often comes in a whisper. May we be those who are quick to whisper our one hope, “Jesus,” to the unbeliever and believer alike and also to be quick to pass along the memes—those bubbly little packages of reminder that we can’t possibly be in control of the world, but we sure know Who is. 

1 All information and quotes from Dr. Ford are from an email exchange with the author.

2 Elaine Bennett, “What’s funny about that? Humor in dark times,” BennettInk.com, published November 12, 2016, https://bennettink.com/humor-dark-times/.

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