Picture this. The date: March 21. The time: 10 p.m. The place: my front yard. (You’ve likely never seen my front yard, though, so just imagine your own front yard — or, if you don’t have a yard, picture Frist’s South Lawn.) It’s the night of the Worm Moon, the last full moon before the spring equinox. Now picture me standing in the middle of it all (which might be a little weird if you’re picturing your own front yard, and doubly so if you don’t know me, but never mind that), gazing up at the moon, shadowed by wandering clouds and surrounded by winking stars. Perhaps an airplane soars across its diameter, letting the gentle buzz of its engine mingle with the crickets’ chirps. Perhaps a tree’s leaves fall, soar upwards on the wind, brush against the moon’s soft, yellow glow.
My first thought: “The moon is beautiful tonight.”
My second: “Oh, worm?”
It’s a fairly routine occurrence for me, as I’m sure it is for many people. You experience something profound, or deeply touching, or simply beautiful, and there’s a tiny, tiny half-sliver of a moment when you’re resting on top of it all. I like to call it the Sea of Sincerity. If you let yourself float, it’s a tranquil experience. But how many people do you know who hover like that for a few minutes and call it a day? You need to go deeper. If you dip down and swim — really let yourself be immersed in the experience — it becomes much more meaningful.
Of course, that’s a really big “if.” I don’t know how to swim, in the experiential sense. When I stand at the edge of the sea, it looks vast and endless, and it’s impossible to see the bottom of it. Usually I’m not the one who chooses whether or not I go in — certain moments come along where I’m pushed out into the Sea against my own will — but I can almost always feel it coming. A zealous knocking at the door on my birthday, a little past midnight, or a glance up at the round, round Moon, bursting with light and rolling into spring with such gentle fervor. I am floating on my back, and I can see it all. But every time, I feel the water lap against my ears, and I fear that if I let my head dip under just a centimeter more, I may drown. So I crack a joke — “this one’s going in my cringe compilation,” I thought to myself, when my friends burst into my dorm room with cupcakes, loud music, and presents — effectively flipping over and paddling desperately towards the shore.
Ah, and the humor. My oldest defense mechanism, my flotation device to be unfolded and blown into when I find myself drifting away. It is, by far, the most entertaining form of self-isolation. Making a joke in times of sobriety is extremely tempting, but why is that? Why do I — why do we — feel the need to do so? As I have found, it’s because jokes are the exact opposite of substance: they are nonsensical, they are absurdist, they are fantastical. They are cold beers to be cracked open with the boys when things get a little too much to handle — our suburban barbecue on the weekends of reality. They are comfortable and cozy; they are kind little lies we tell everyone, including ourselves. But as any seasoned wielder can tell you, humor is a double-edged sword. Best-case scenario, they are a polite way of distancing yourself from the situation at hand, worst-case, they come off as insensitive and inappropriate.
Humor can quickly become an easy way to avoid intimacy — armed with quips and witticisms, we become the world’s greatest escapists, slipping through the bonds of tenderness — but intimacy, much like oxygen, shelter, and late meal, is absolutely necessary to our survival. Making a joke out of everything can come across as not caring about anything. It develops into a very real apathy towards life, because it becomes difficult to attach emotionally to something without panicking — pulling the life jacket cord — making a joke out of it — floating back, back, back to dry land.
I think it’s time we learned to swim. There’s no need to park a helicopter a mile above the Mariana Trench and cannonball in, but we should at least dip our toes into the Sea of Sincerity once in a while. We can don our comfiest swimsuits and drive up to the beach, look out at the watery horizon, suppress our apprehension. Maybe wade in, maybe do some floating of our own volition. Try leaving the pool noodles at home. Someday, we may have the courage just to sink.