Being and Dartmouthness

by Kip Dooley | 11/17/11 11:00pm

I've always had a complicated relationship with satire because I'm pretty horrible at taking flak. I tend to think way too hard when I'm someone else's punch line, and I end up feeling stung by the most harmless of pokes from my friends.

Like any culture, Dartmouth has its own way of joking about things. When we grow weary of our studies, we often turn our powers of analysis on ourselves and those around us.

In terms of population, 4,000 students make us a mid-sized college, but it always feels smaller than it is. I'm often plagued by the feeling that no matter what I do, someone is watching me. Noting the small details in my routines, habits and social choices, someone is patiently waiting for the opportunity to make that spot-on, all-too-witty jab that sends the crowd into hysterics and my cheeks into a deep shade of red.

The perfect defense is, of course, to beat them to the punch. Ordering an egg white omelet with extra spinach to break your Breakfast Bomb habit? Wink at your friend and say "I know, I'm being hysterically vegan these days." Blitzing out about a hike to finally get off the couch? Sign off with "#crunchygranola." Sitting at Occupy Dartmouth for some fresh perspective? Preemptively crack the inevitable joke about how this hippie shit is all about facetime anyways.

You can only punch yourself so many times before you start to feel beat up or forget why you're getting an egg white omelet in the first place.

"Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists," David Foster Wallace said of the paralyzing cynicism of American humor. "Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving. There's some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who's come to love his cage."

In a lot of ways, I think Wallace is right. We spend way too much time worrying about what other people think. It's exhausting to go through life making paranoid tit-for-tat calculations about how to justify what we do and how we can get back at all our critics, real or imagined.

But there's also danger in presuming that irony and sarcasm have nothing to offer. I like to believe, maybe a little too earnestly, that the answers to the big questions on our campus and in society can be found if we just think hard enough. Ignore the jokers they know nothing. Pursue your passions with uncompromising resolve in the face of critics. But without laughing at yourself from time to time and seeing that other people's wisecracks are a great opportunity to do so it's easy to end up isolating yourself behind a wall of your own convictions.

Last spring as I was driving down I-89 to Boston, a friend of mine pointed at a duck swimming in a fetid little puddle of water in a ditch beside the road.

"Look at that," he said as he passed me a bag of Doritos. "Tell me, how does that make you feel? Why aren't you raising awareness for that duck?"

As my friends howled in laughter, I stared straight ahead, steaming, spinning mad fantasies of how I could get back at them, how I could once and for all convince them that we all need to care more, need to think more, need to feel more. To prove how, while I was working on being more empathetic and thoughtful and kind, they were just being a bunch of jerks. So, there.

I thought about the duck joke the other day, and this time I laughed. I get my friend's point now. It had nothing to do with the duck and nothing to do with trying to make me feel bad. The humor in his comment lies in the realization that we are not the center of the universe. At the end of the day, we're just a bunch of guys driving down the highway eating chips, so it's OK to table the deep-seated convictions for a minute and simply laugh.

Our ability to pursue the things we love can be bolstered by humor, rather than thwarted by it. Laughter nourishes, sort of like a hearty omelet egg whites with extra spinach, that is. I'm grabbing a soy milk on the way out too. Gimme your best shot.