by Florence Ditlow
September 11, 2001 has taken its place as a pivotal juncture in time because it affected most of the planet’s inhabitants. People everywhere can share what it meant, personally.
Using the words “humor” and “9-11” in the same sentence is wildly incongruent, for the two topics seem to be worlds apart. Unwittingly, I entered, intending to help the survivors of 9-11. I was then an RN with an established support group at Healing Works, part of a foundation for holistic care, located at 5th Avenue and Twenty- fifth Streets in Manhattan.
The group was composed of people with health issues who attended to get, for instance, psychotherapy, Reiki or humor therapy. My group met on Tuesdays to laugh, through the use of Improv Comedy. The usual weight of life’s problems went out of control with the addition of 9-11!
My recollection of the aftershock was like an undrinkable cocktail of disgust. A brief recipe involved the news, replay of the disaster, search for survivors and clean-up, grieving, funerals, an anthrax scare, work stoppage, transportation rerouting or air pollution from building fires’ fallout.
How do survivors cope? People needed to talk and did share indeed for months, their own stories. How does all this stress test my group? On 9-11 our group disbanded with silent prayer when the attack began and I witnessed the shock as people went home, stunned, full of fear and disbelief. The wondrous part was UNITY; everyone became family and held each other together so kindly.
My experience with traumatized war vets served me well; I chose to move the collective vibration of the group and suggested they let go- to the extent possible. It wasn’t Improv then, but laughter exercise, using Dr. Madan Kataria’s “laughter for no reason.” Smiling, deep breathing and silent laughs break the ice. A great session of laughing and crying ensued beginning with the “Why me? laugh.” The word why has a “hi” sound and a cry included in it, too! The body language comes as a bonus and before long my circle had collapsed on the floor, except for a woman who ran to the bathroom to avoid wetting her pants.
Anger is a component of grief and I’m grateful for this benefit of humor- we’ve witnessed it often in jokes. A man who had lost an acquaintance in the tower started without prompting; he just needed permission to invent a laugh- the Angry Laugh. In our seated circle, we followed, holding fists clenched as he unceasingly repeated, “ha” while digging his heels, tantrum-like into the carpet. It felt so good! A visceral belly shift: the huge pain had the quality of a popped balloon. The carpet was never the same!
Improv places you kindly with your feelings, in the moment. A group will help shift anger toward forgiveness, at your own pace. I intended for hope to make an appearance and saw a brave group of New Yorkers spouting off a few weeks later. One remembered how her city, in 1949, was “bigger than The Almighty United Nations.”
I succeeded in helping us release part of the overwhelming grief stress. Sometimes emotion moved through simple laughter brought the comments that would help people function in stressful scenarios. The “I guess I forgot how I got home on 9-11” or “My neighbor just disappeared” statements came heavily at first. As weeks passed a “reconstruction” atmosphere began in the group, so I typically gave permission to use the emotion as part of a healing game- Improv .
I’ve alluded to Improv in my previous post, so here is their favorite exercise, “Hitchhiker.” Four chairs are placed together, representing a car’s front and back seats. The driver takes his seat and with the emotion of her choice, starts the car- often eagerly addressing the vehicle!
The (guilty)driver picks up a man who is weeping about the trip. The only rules are: say yes to the action and adopt the new emotion brought in by succeeding hitch hikers. As the two in front sob pathetically, a rider (angry)enters. The three arguing chaps grudgingly stop for a teen, who smiles and sings a song about needing a ride. There are usually spontaneous laughs when the whole group makes up gibberish or attempts to keep up with this last passenger. The other group members benefit and find release or enjoyment of observation. In these times that “try mens’ souls,” Improv was an option to endure changes of 9-11.
Improvising helps me laugh all right, but as Beth Boynton has established, Improv humor is a worthy learning device and a pathway toward growth. I applaud Beth for this important accomplishment!
My next installment: The impact of humor before and after 9/11.