Adam Avitable is contemplative

Our hopes and prayers . . .

“Our hopes and prayers . . . ”

I hate those words.

I’ve used them. Just like I’ve used “My sincerest condolences” but I absolutely hate those words. I know the sentiment behind them is genuine, yet the words ring false. To my ears, they speak of apathy and insincerity surrounding a moment of true compassion, and I hate it.

When tragedy strikes, I actively rebel against expressing platitudes and overwrought sentiments. I look for laughter. I try to find humor in a pitch-black world. I tell jokes. I make fun.

But why? Why do I do it?

In the past, I’ve explained how I use humor as a coping mechanism. It is how I deal with difficult situations, it’s how I handle life, and it’s what many people need to hear when moments seem the most grim.

I get challenged on this statement. I’ve heard that I’m not experiencing any pain, that this isn’t a coping mechanism, that it’s just a false excuse that I use so that I can make light of the sufferings of others, that it’s insincere and fake, that it’s a cop out. How can I say that I use humor to deal with pain and tragedy when I’m not personally suffering? I can’t blame anyone who has said this or thought it because it’s based on an incomplete reality. Without all of the information, how can they say anything else? It’s what you don’t see – what you couldn’t possibly know – that makes the difference.

When I heard about the explosions that rocked the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring countless others, I didn’t delve deeper. I stayed away from the details, and I told a joke about it, because that’s what I have to do. In my world, I have no choice.

I don’t know how it is for others. I can’t speak to that. All I can describe is what happens in my mind, when my overactive imagination combines with my empathy to form an overwhelmingly graphic film in my head. I don’t even have to read more than the headlines to be inundated with imagery. I close my eyes and see it all. The shock wave, shrapnel and ball bearings flying everywhere. The guttural cries of pain. A man with ragged bloody stumps where his legs were only seconds before. A child dying, never to grow old or experience the mysteries of life. The icy cold of shock spreading out in waves. The terrified screams of horror and the blanketing silence of the dead. That’s what I see, and the more I immerse myself in the stories, the more overwhelmed I am. If it wasn’t for my barriers and defense mechanisms, I would shut down, incapable of functioning.

Adam Avitable is contemplative

Staying away from it isn’t a solution, either. My imagination can be tempered by reality, so I’m compelled to read about it and absorb every detail to try to dial back the imagery. Even then, though, it’s not always enough. I remember watching the beheading of Daniel Pearl ten years ago, and I can still see it when I close my eyes. I watched it and cried, not breathing, just sobbed, imagining myself in his position, knowing that was the end of my life, having no choice or control, and then I watched it again. And again. And again. Punishing myself over and over for being healthy and alive and fine while someone else suffered such atrocities.

I heard that they declared a winner for the Boston Marathon. He came in first, second, fourth, and twelfth.”

This is how I cope.

This is the way that I take that imagery and shunt it aside. I use logic. I talk about abstract elements like one tragedy in the scope of all the tragedies in the world and the amount of people who die every second. I use humor. I tell jokes that shock and appall but bring that release of laughter. I use writing. With my words, I can express my true feelings and work through that which could be mentally and emotionally overwhelming.

I don’t need to have suffered the pain myself to need to defend against it.

This is not something I’ve shared before – it’s not something I talk about, because I don’t think people will understand it. How do you explain that you get flooded with a flash of explicit, graphic imagery every time you read or hear about the darkness in the world? How can anyone take you seriously if you tell them that you have to joke about it to push off your own impending anxiety attack and emotional collapse?

I don’t know the answer to that, but that’s okay. I can only hope that maybe this will shed a small amount of light on the reason that in a time of tragedy, I’m that guy. That guy who won’t use platitudes. He’s the one who will try to make you laugh. And if it helps you too, great, but in the end, it’s because it helps him.

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40 Replies to “Our hopes and prayers . . .”

  1. Elizabeth Barone

    I’m an avoider. I just stay away from the news, the prayer posts, the gory photos. I can’t handle it, because like you, I don’t need any details to see it all in my mind’s eye. It horrifies me. I’m too sensitive. I hate to admit that, but there it is.

    I get it.

  2. Mo

    Cops have the same coping mechanism. My husband was a police officer with LAPD for 23 years, and some of the things he experienced were situations no normal human being could imagine wrapping their heads around. So he and his partner and fellow officers would joke about them. On the surface it seemed sort of sick or cold, but it was their shield that protected them day in and day out. They had to focus in intense situations constantly and then be able to let them go so they could go on the next call without worrying about the previous one. Using humor is probably a hell of a lot better for your mental health than dwelling on things.

    • Avitable

      My mom’s a nurse and I think it’s the same thing. It feels inappropriate to compare my approach to anyone who sees death on a regular basis, though, since my experiences are mostly third-hand and sometimes borne purely from my imagination.

      • Mo

        I do think there are some similarities to the approach, though. You don’t see it first hand but it affects you nonetheless. I think most of us tend to use humor to soften the edges of the ugliness in the world. I think the real issue for people is, How soon is too soon?

  3. Ingrid

    I actually understand this, Adam. As a child, I would laugh when I got nervous (okay I still do that, but I control it in some situations now), so when I got into trouble and laughed, people thought I was taking the situation lightly. Be well.

  4. Karen

    Just the other day, we were talking at clinical about how it must be to have a student nurse give you a needle, when you have Alzheimer’s. Having been told three times (the last time right before the poke), my patient STILL yelped, glared at me, and asked me “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” and even as I explained it as I finished the job and pressed a cotton swab to her arm, she told me I was a shithead, and I didn’t know a thing about life. 5 minutes later I came to sit with her again, knowing she remembered nothing of our previous encounter, and she patted my hand and said I was a sweet-faced kid.
    As I relayed all of this in post-conference, to my peers and my teacher, someone said something about one of their loved ones having dementia, and how sad it was. I made a joke about it, and the group laughed – including the person who’s loved one had suffered. It’s how we get through, especially those of us who ARE more sensitive and vulnerable to the negative aspects of life. The way I look at it is that the people like us who are that sensitive, are also lucky enough to be sensitive to the positive stuff, the tender stuff, and the stuff that makes life worth living for, hoping, and for having faith in humanity, in each other, and ourselves. It’s 100% okay to be that way.

  5. Cher

    i use humor as a coping mechanism, too, but usually only when dealing with my own personal pain. like, when my father, a drug addict, was killed by a tractor trailer truck on a highway. he was under the influence of drugs when his car went out of control and hit a Pepsi truck. i said the first thing that jumped into my head, “this is the one time Pepsi beat coke.”

    my family didn’t talk to me for MONTHS.

    i wasn’t being insensitive. he was MY father. i was suffering a huge loss that i couldn’t wrap my mind around, so i made a joke to allow myself to feel human again, instead of the hollow pain that was crushing me.

    you can’t judge people by the way they grieve.

    that said, you can’t say that “sending thoughts and prayers” is insincere either, Adam.
    everyone copes differently in times of tragedy they can’t explain.

  6. Angella

    I get quiet when bad things happen, because I hate how many people turn them into ways to glorify themselves. You are not one of those people, obviously, but you’ve probably seen it too.

    I use humor and distraction to cope as well. My mind works at a million miles per hour and it’s how I stay (somewhat) sane.


  7. Sherry Carr-Smith

    My mind works the same way. And it’s how I dream. And these images will be the images in my dreams for years. Humor helps me too, and I’m so glad my husband has the same sense of humor as I do, otherwise, he’d think I was a monster.

  8. Becky

    It is just human nature when someone is hurting we reach out. We know the words we offer are inadequate, and yet, to not say anything is to appear insensitive. My sister lost her husband Thanksgiving weekend, and two days later she told us “If one more person says I’m Sorry, ever again I will lose my shit”.
    And yet, that’s what we do, maybe not so much to offer them comfort but to give ourselves comfort. I am doing all I can…
    The most supportive thing we can do sometimes, is to just sit quietly. There will come a time, especially in a tragedy like yesterday, when we will be able to do something. Until then, just offer quiet support. Pray, whatever it is you do.
    The media jumped on this and started immediately “reporting” whatever they heard, true or not. As if there there wasn’t enough shock and fear and chaos in Boston, they needed to make sure the entire nation was stirred up and scared and shocked and in chaos.
    I hate the media.
    There are families hurting. They have lost loved ones. There are people who were there, who saw it, who walked away who will suffer survivor guilt. They are victims as much as those injured and killed.
    We all deal with grief, differently. There is shock, there is fear, there will be anger. All perfectly normal.

    • Avitable

      Sitting quietly is good, unless we’re incapable of it. You’re right – there are many healthy ways to deal with pain, and I think that looking down on those who use humor isn’t the right approach.

  9. Suzy Soro (@HotComesToDie)

    I’m not conflicted on people making jokes on the day of a national tragedy. I think it’s very inappropriate because it’s not really your tragedy to mock. You didn’t lose a loved one, you didn’t lose a limb. Like Cher said, she can make fun of her own horror because it’s hers. And still her family didn’t talk to her. The one thing I noticed on Twitter was that 80% of the women were respectful and not joking around. 80% of the men were. I don’t know what exactly that means but I did unfollow 3 men yesterday.

  10. Sheila

    I make a joke out of everything – whether it be my dead mom, my son’s ongoing health issues or my kid not sleeping through the night.

    It’s not only a coping mechanism – it’s just the way I’m wired.

    After my mom died, my family and I were gathered in the halls of the ICU trying to figure out what we needed to do. After all, none of us had ever planned a funeral and we were bone dead exhausted and things were getting intense. Being the asshole I am, I said “Alright guys, let’s face it….we’re all as brain dead as mom right now. Why don’t we go home, try to take a nap and meet back up for dinner and try to figure this out.” It broke the ice, we laughed, went home and cried.

    My son was diagnosed with an essential tremor, which, even at eleven, makes simple tasks – like tying his shoes and buttoning his shirt – difficult. In our house, he is known as Michael J. Fox.

    Why? Because it’s funny and helps distracts us all from the fact that an eleven year has a high chance of developing Parkinson’s at some point.

    Last night, I was watching tv with my family and said “Man, I’m so glad we don’t have cable. Now we don’t have to watch all of the updates about the bombing in Boston.” and my sister was all “Oh I know!”

    I know that terrible things happen in this world – and some of them happen to me and/or the people that I love. That doesn’t mean that I can’t try to insulate myself – and them – from the terrors.

    Don’t worry, Schmadam. I get the jokes.

  11. Lexi

    In general, I feel like there really ISN’T a “right thing” to say in these situations. Everybody does the best they can. I’m someone who posts nothing about stuff like this. I wasn’t there, I didn’t know anyone who was, so I’m careful not to make it about myself (which is what SO many people do – I mean, c’mon, you wore a purple shirt “in honor” of Boston? I’m sure they appreciate it! ).

  12. Ed Horch

    I laughed out loud at your joke, because I’m the same way. I use humor to cope with a lot of things, especially a few unspeakably bad things that have happened to me.The way I figure it, if you’re not laughing about it you’re crying about it. And if you’re crying about it, the bad guys still own it–if you can laugh about it, then you own it and the bad guys have lost.

  13. Lynda

    I cope the same way. I just don’t do it in front of an audience. I did send some texts to my boyfriend which I thought were funny, but others probably would think I was callous. That’s why they only go to him.

  14. sybillaw

    I know allll about the imagery. I have never read that book, the, “A Child Called It” (I think that’s it), because once I’ve read that shit, I will never get it out of my head. I guess it’s to show what a great survivor this guy is, and that is awesome, but holy crap – I don’t need to read about the awfulness. People get angry at their friends for posting disgusting pictures of abused animals and baby crap – why? Because no one needs to see that shit.
    But more importantly, my mind can immediately get dark like that, too. Graphic, realistic images – fleeting but horrible. I hate it. I don’t know if it’s just some people who do that or everyone, but it’s scary and very uncomfortable.
    So I don’t have a problem with the humor.
    As you know.

  15. Megan

    I’m a total avoider because I hurt so much for other people. I’ve sat sobbing for other people’s pain on more than one occassion.

    People cope with things in different ways, and I think it’s important for us to remember that. In my experience, comedians are some of the most sensitive people around and they use humor as a shield.

  16. Kim T

    I totally get this Adam. I’ve always dealt with death and tragedy this way as well, probably from being in law enforcement for so long. This is the way we deal and cope, and the people who refuse to understand aren’t our friends or the ones who love us for who we are. I dealt with this same thing Monday after the incident in Boston when someone i thought was a friend turned out to be a closed minded hypocrite. And for me anyway, those are the people who can fuck right off.

  17. Allyson

    I think I have defended your use of humor in tragedies before, so I’m sure you know that I don’t find your jokes totally inappropriate. (I didn’t think the runner joke was funny, but not due to inappropriateness, just not my favorite of your jokes.) I am heading out this Saturday to attend my grandfather’s funeral, and while I know that it will be a somber event, I also know that my family will cope with laughter and good memories.

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