Humor, Our True Selves, and Magic

What could this title possibly mean? What is the relationship between these three categories? I think the answer to these two questions involves a provocative truth about human life.

We have perceptions of many things that we go and revise based on our judgment. Optical illusions are an example; something looks one way, but we know that it isn’t really that way. What allows us to say that we “know” otherwise. I think the answer is judgment. We make judgments about all sorts of things.

For example, we make judgments about what to believe. It may be tempting to think that if some lottery numbers come up one week, then they will not come up the next week, but with some reflection about the way probability works, we realize that this is just a form of the gambler’s fallacy. Here is a list of common fallacies. In such cases, we are attracted to a certain belief, but investigation culminating in judgment reveals it to be false.

Same is true with actions. I may be really hungry at the store and desire to buy some bagels and cream cheese, but on reflection I may realize that my perception of need was mistaken and that I don’t even like bagels that much and that it was just my hunger talking.

But there are some things that, as soon as we try to judge them, they DISAPPEAR. Here’s an example. A joke strikes me as funny, but before I laugh or retell it or alter it, I stop to try and see if it’s actually funny. But as we know, trying to judge if a joke is really funny makes it not funny. Also, another example might be sex. If you want to have sex, but stop to think about whether you should, that always kills the mood. If you don’t believe me, try rehearsing the reasons for sex on a particular night with your partner and see what happens.

One last example. Pretend you know you’re awkward (I have expertise) so when you walk into a party and tell yourself “don’t be awkward.” So, you’re about to say something, but then you check yourself and try to decide if its awkward or not. But as we all know, the most awkward statements are those which are double checked or second guessed. Not being awkward means NOT using one’s judgment, or as psychologists say, not self-monitoring.

What does all this mean? I think it means something very special, which is that somethings that are valuable and worthwhile are NECESSARILY illusions. Humor I think is an illusion, and as soon as we try to look beyond it, it disappears. It cannot be made consistent with judgment. And perhaps our very personalities are also just illusions. This can be seen by the above example. Whenever we try to “act natural” or “be ourselves” we inevitably fail, and so we can see that being ourselves is interestingly complex. When we are ourselves, we are “true” to ourselves: we are being authentic, but we are also necessarily participating in an illusion, because any attempt to find out what it would be to “be ourselves” destroys the very possibility of being ourselves.

This is why I find each person’s personality such an endless source of mystery, and yes, as the title says, MAGIC. For instance, when we go to a magic show, we are amused, and we know that we are being tricked by an illusion. And yet, if we try and go beyond the illusion and to “learn” the trick, we stop being amused. The magic disappears. And this I think is why magicians never reveal their secrets, because to do so would disrupt the very nature of magic, which is to amuse and surprise by being false.

The lesson then is that human life is, in a very important way, necessarily an illusion that we play along with and take great joy in falling under its spell.


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