Laughing at the Gallows

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Sometimes the daily onslaught of the horrific is so real that to survival calls for laughter. Andrew Lewis has this Perspective.

Growing up, we didn’t have much food in our house. That actually might be an overstatement. I recall once when my brother and I asked our mother (herself a war refugee from Europe) for food and she replied simply, “Go eat butter.”

But it’s rotten, we protested. And to that she had no reply.

For a long while after, my brother and I would mimic her in times of particular duress. “Go eat butter,” one of us would say, to which we would both break out in laughter.

Years later I was talking with a childhood friend whose father had survived wartime famine in the Ukraine in the 1940’s. “Pops once told a story,” he recounted, “of how when he was 12 he and the other kids had-” and here we both started chuckling- “He had to go dig for potatoes in a minefield.” Perhaps only the children of survivors could find this funny.


I once retold this story to an older man who had survived the Holocaust in Latvia. He too laughed at the image, but then added, "It’s true, many had to do it."

And that’s precisely the point. Of course, there’s totally nothing funny about young children risking their lives to forage for mealy potatoes. How could there be?

But if you’ve survived, sometimes the only way to survive may be in recognizing the absurdity of the conditions from which you’ve emerged. To recognize absurdity, to acknowledge what Milan Kundera called the “laughter of the devil,” presupposes a world founded in the opposite - in reason and justice, and from there we can resuscitate meaning. If we can’t acknowledge the absurd, then in some cases we may have little left to rely on.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis lives in Sebastopol and works with at-risk youth.