No one really knows the roots of April Fools’ Day, so I can offer a theory without too much fear of rebuttal. Almost every culture has a holiday in which people dress up, wear masks, and be fools. Notice I didn’t say act like fools. The masks give us permission to be the fools we know we are. That’s why we love clowns – they are clumsy, silly and funny-looking, which is how we frequently feel.
We have at least three holidays like this: Halloween, Mardi Gras, April Fools’ Day. We need a lot of practice to deal with our silliness.
One of my favorite jokes is about a fool. It seems this fellow hears about a cruise to Europe for $15. He quickly goes to the dock and pays his fee. He is led to a large galley at the bottom of the ship, where he sees long benches of people who are holding oars. He is shown to his spot on the bench, and once he grabs the oar, a very large man enters the galley holding a drum. With each beat of the drum, the “crew” pulls the oars. This continues day and night for several weeks. When they finally arrive in Europe, our beleaguered fool turns to the person next to him and says: “Excuse me, but this is my first cruise. How much do you tip the drummer?”
The joke works (I hope!) because we can all identify with the fool. All of us have been in situations where we have made bad decisions, said stupid things, or not understood the rules. All of us have been fools.
Young children are comfortable with their silliness. They enjoy making repetitive strange noises, talking to insects and laughing frequently. They giggle, not because anything is particularly funny, just because giggling seems right at that moment. Remember grammar school? Little children are very, very happy. That’s why we love them. That’s also why they annoy us.
Things change when children become adolescents. Adolescents still have the ability to act and feel silly, but suddenly that silliness feels shameful. So adolescents work very hard to pretend they are cool, and they make fun of kids who are not as successful at hiding their silliness.
This is why the awkward children get alienated. All the kids can identify with the awkwardness and, because of shame, need to keep their distance.
As we all know, things get worse when we become adults. Not only do we pretend we are cool, we pretend we are smart. Now that’s silly!
When we have children, for example, we try to convince them that we know what we are doing. Truth is, almost no parents know what they are doing but almost all parents pretend they do. We pretend we are more knowledgeable, more wise, less insecure and more in control then we really are. All of this pretending seems very silly to me. I think everyone knows we are pretending, but if they bring the issue up, then everyone will know everyone else is silly. So we pretend.
Several years ago I was in a session with a family of two parents and three boys between the ages of 12 and 16. During the session, the 16-year-old, after being distracted for about 10 minutes, blurted out: “I think I figured out what’s wrong with you people – you’re parents!” Then he graced us with his new insight: “I think when you become parents something comes out of the sky and sucks something out of your head!” I told him I was shocked that he had access to this secret information and I accused his parents of betraying the parental oath. I didn’t know if I was poking fun at him or myself. Probably both.
Years ago there was a very silly movie called The History of the World – Part I.
In one scene Moses, played by Mel Brooks, came down from the Mount with three tablets. “God has given us 15 Commandments!” he proclaims before dropping one of the tablets, whereupon he adds: “Actually that was 10 Commandments! God has given us 10 Commandments!” Since seeing that movie, I’ve wondered what would have been on that third tablet. Probably the 11th commandment would have been: “Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously!”
My friend and colleague Dr. Dori Middleman is a wonderful example of someone who is honoring the 11th commandment. She recently discovered she had a small tumor on her pituitary gland and is scheduled for brain surgery. After researching her condition quite seriously and settling upon a course of action, she didn’t know what else to do. So yesterday she threw herself a Pituitary Party.
“Traditionally,” she wrote in her invitation, “brain tumors have been viewed as undesirable, somewhat dreaded, and even potentially life-threatening. They’ve gotten a bum rap, in my opinion. I think they give life a purpose . . . and give their bearers something to talk about, but better yet, laugh about.”
She asked all her friends to help her have fun with her brain tumor. The cake was shaped like a pituitary gland. One of her friends responded to the invitation by saying: “You need this party like a hole in the head!”
Now that I think about it, I might not be right about everybody having very silly insides and very serious outsides. I might not be right about everybody. But the fact that you read to the end of this column says that I am probably right about you.
Happy April Fools’ Day!