About two weeks ago, I found myself driving back to Harvard from morning PT (physical training) at MIT. Exhausted, I drove past the Zipcar return point, only to realize that I had no legal means for making a U-turn without adding 5-10 minutes to my commute. The time was 0830; I feared arriving late to my 0900 Russian class, and I had no intention of incurring the wrath of my Russian instructor. Moreover, I disliked wearing my sweaty PT uniform to class, as the uniform simultaneously smelled and drew unwanted attention. As such, I was determined to return to Mather with enough time for a quick pre-Russian shower. Thus, I braved Mass. Ave., and—through a series of illegal maneuvers—attempted to slide the car back into its designated parking spot.
My passenger—a fellow grizzled cadet—yelled various creative obscenities as I dangerously approached the Zipcar parking spot. Smiling, I turned to him and threatened to drive the car into a street light, but at such an angle that only I would die, leaving him to inherit my responsibilities, as well as my smelly carcass. After a few seconds of silence, we erupted in laughter. I completed my dangerous maneuver, exited the car, and asked him if, perhaps, we had laughed too hard at my dark joke. His only complaint was that I didn’t materialize my threat. We stared at each other for a brief second, erupted in laughter yet again, drank some coffee, and went our separate ways.
The aforementioned interaction, though disturbing to some, was an honest one. Neither I nor my friend concealed our stress; instead, we opted to mock it. Unfortunately, most of us spend our lives shrouding our misery behind polite mannerisms, the oddest of which is the habitual “how are you” and its corresponding partner: “I’m fine, how about you?” The strangest part of this boring ritual is how we continue to walk past each other as we answer, already knowing that our acquaintance’s reply will prove too short to merit a full conversation. I try my best to avoid this annoying exchange by simply raising my eyebrows or politely nodding as I pass those I know. However, even this attempt to stave off “how are you” proves somewhat dehumanizing; names become a series of nods, and before I know it, every interaction becomes rehearsed.
The truth is, we’re all a bit on edge. Additionally, few people genuinely care about how we’re doing; we’re all unhealthily obsessed with our own affairs, viewing ourselves as the sole protagonists of our own odysseys. As a friend of mine explained, “everyone else is an NPC (a non-playable character) in life’s game.” Moreover, we’re habitual liars, satisfied with reciting and receiving the same reply, day in and day out: “I’m fine.” This response helps stave off the guilt of not making time for friends, for family, and for those we love. After all, everyone’s doing just fine.
But we know the truth; we simply choose not to share it. We lack the time to challenge our own demons, let alone those of friends and strangers. To answer each “how are you” honestly would take an eternity; thus, we’re stuck maintaining the polite illusion of peace.
However, this illusion is overrated and well worth disrupting. Sure, we may lack the time to engage in meaningful conversations, but a quick dark joke can help lighten the mood. I’m not advocating this strategy with strangers or unfamiliar acquaintances; with them, you’ve got to maintain the illusion of peace. But amongst close friends, self-deprecating, cynical, dark humor—the language of the morbidly joyful—provides the perfect disruption. Nothing empowers you more than laughing at the seemingly serious. To make a mockery of stress is to seize the reins of your life once more. I can’t control half my schedule, the attitude of those around me, life’s banalities, or the policies dictating my terms of service. But I can certainly laugh at it all.
As I enter the Barker Center, I’m greeted by a friend. “How are you?” he asks. “I was doing just fine, but then I remembered that you’re somehow part of my life,” I answer. “F*** off,” he replies, and we see each other off with sadistic smiles. We may not feel fine, but for a moment, we’re happy as we briefly shatter the false peace. I waltz into Russian class just before 0907, still stuck in my sweaty uniform; my daring illegal U-turn had failed to grant me enough time to shower and change.
I open my textbook to page 48, where I’m greeted by the Russian word for “hopeless” in bold typeface. I chuckle, and my Russian teacher throws me a look of concern. For a moment, I contemplate telling her the truth: that I find the word “hopeless” funny, that I find entertainment in life’s small, meaningless ironic miseries. I open my mouth, only to mutter “ничего,” the Russian word for “nothing.” As she turns to face the blackboard, I silently laugh in my head; sometimes dark humor is best enjoyed alone.
Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.