Why is there no imagination and humor today – in modern America? Where is our inner Mark Twain? Why do we take ourselves so seriously, missing the best? How do we find that gem?
Yes, national security, fiscal responsibility, and moral compass matter. But as Twain – and Ronald Reagan – reminded, so do creativity, imagination, and humor. We must recall the link.
A relationship exists between problem-solving and distraction, managing reality, and indulging creativity, including good humor. Twain and Reagan knew it, and we should remember it.
Daily, we watch loops of ugly news, try to get accustomed to it. Now and then, we reflect on the world, how lost, lopsided, and divided society is – bad ideas discussed as good, good disparaged.
But pause and look at Twain’s and Reagan’s lightness. The value lies in seeing through their eyes. They were realists, different political persuasions, but knew humor leavens life.
Born 181 years ago this month, Twain offered wry, stinging irony. Awash in ideas, he wrote the “Prince and the Pauper,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Huck Finn,” “Connecticut Yankee …,” then teased “there is no such thing as a new idea,” just “old ideas” and a “mental kaleidoscope” which “makes new and curious combinations… with the same old pieces of colored glass.”
Maybe, but his “colored glass” and humor fed another side – social and technological problem-solving. Not a politician, he did patent inventions, pioneering fingerprints in forensics, new games, adhesives, snaps, and buckles. And humor enhanced his thinking. See, e.g., Mark Twain Granted His First Patent on December 19, 1871.
What did Twain do? He leveraged humor to spur freshness within and without, promoting solutions to what others deemed insoluble, spurring action, ending inertia. True, he suffered few fools, but he taught with humor, causing people to reflect and trade seriousness for honesty.
His words echo, some silly and sarcastic, others subtle, even sublime. They should make us smile. “Always obey your parents, when they are present.” “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” “I was born modest, but it didn’t last.”
Other laconic bits, oddly modern: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” “Character is the architect of achievements.” “Prosperity is the best protector of principle.” “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” Bingo!
Like Twain, Reagan was a humorist in his time and an enduring teacher for ours.
At the Cold War’s height, thinking he was off-mic, he poked Communism. “My fellow Americans,” he said sardonically, “I’m pleased to announce I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union; we begin bombing in five minutes.” An obvious joke, it escaped. So be it.
Criticized for early bedtimes, he quipped: “It’s true, hard work never killed anybody, but I figured, why take the chance?” Critiqued on age, he said: “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”
On the operating table after the assassination attempt, bullet near his heart, he eased his surgeons’ nerves. “I hope you’re all Republicans…” To his wife: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
How could Reagan, and Twain before him, dare to live by such whimsey and heart, to laugh at themselves without regret, risk offense, offer so light a touch that words produced affection?
They could do that because they did not take themselves seriously, were self-confident yet self-deprecating. They never forgot their humanity, to be humbled by it. They knew the power of undisguised truth. And they knew what you know, that in the end – we are all the same.
What did humor, imagination, spontaneity, and originality get them? Some offense, but more respect, gratitude, nod for the nod, smile for a smile, decency, dignity, longevity, and results.
What Twain and Reagan knew is that the best of me and you – of all America – is not conserved by arrogance, nor a humorless grip on power, not by truculence, forcing you to believe as I do, but by chance to laugh at ourselves, as they did, and take comfort in our own conscience.
Of course, that takes patience, practice, an honest sense that we are not so important. It takes love of what lies in humor, appreciation for originality, imagination, and each other. When we find that gem again, the ability to traipse the path of a simple laugh, we will be rich again. And somewhere, Twain and Reagan will be smiling, maybe laughing that it took us so long.