More than two months into brain cancer, my mood remains mostly upbeat. So upbeat, I think about jokes that connect to my condition.
I’ve got glioblastoma, aka GBM. Median survival is about 15 months. And yet, most people feel relatively well until they get near the egress. I’m certainly in that position now.
“What, we may ask, is an optimist? The man who fell off the roof of the Railway Exchange Building, and who was heard to remark, as he passed the seventh floor on his way down, ‘So far, so good.'”
Here’s one of the jokes I’ve thought about. It’s more than 90 years old, according to etymologist Barry Popik, who says it originated in a 1924 edition of the Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association: “What, we may ask, is an optimist? The man who fell off the roof of the Railway Exchange Building, and who was heard to remark, as he passed the seventh floor on his way down, ‘So far, so good,’ was an optimist.”
The point of the joke (retold as a fall off the Empire State Building after that more impressive skyscraper was built) is to put down people who are overly optimistic.
And maybe that fits in some cases. But not mine.
After all, everybody is falling from the metaphorical equivalent of a building and will eventually go splat. Nobody is immortal. So the fact that I’m happy in my current condition — “so far, so good” — isn’t really invalid.
Yeah, my brainpower is down a gear, sometimes. And I’m a bit more limited in thinking about reasonable ambitions. But right now, I’m able to read a book, ride a fancy recumbent tricycle and, ahem, write a column once in a while.
So far, so good. And in fact, I think that’s a good way for anybody to be able to focus.
Here’s another joke. I think about this when my friends offer what I am always grateful for: They say they’re praying for me. Mostly, I like it because of their motive.
Do I expect the Almighty to hear them and whack my cancer cells? Not really. But I think about this tale, for which I can find no credited author: A pious man is in his house when a flood starts. He prays for rescue, figuring God will grant him a miracle. While he’s waiting, a neighbor drives up to his door and offers a ride to safety. He thanks the man but says he is depending on the Almighty.
As the water rises outside, a motorboat zooms up to the house and stops. He gives the same response. The water gets so high, he is forced to climb onto his roof, praying all the while. A helicopter roars up with a rope hanging down to him. He waves it off.
After awhile the house collapses and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he demands to ask God a question.
“I put all of my faith in You,” he says. “Why didn’t You come and save me?”
And God replies, “I sent you a truck. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you expecting?”
The research on possible new treatments for glioblastoma is astonishingly vigorous. It’s not beyond possibility that some of it may prove effective while I still need it. So maybe the prayers will get them nudged a little faster?
“Anything that can be mocked immediately seems less threatening. The greater the anxiety a particular subject produces, the more jokes will be made about it.”
That idea makes me smile, even if I’m not really a believer.
So why do jokes fit into my current condition?
The scholar and author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a book about Jewish humor that offers an explanation for how jokes link to Jewish psychology: “Anything that can be mocked immediately seems less threatening. The greater the anxiety a particular subject produces, the more jokes will be made about it,” he wrote.
I think that has a broader truth. Jewish humor covers an astonishing set of horrible situations. The play “Fiddler on the Roof” offers a “prayer” with a punchline for the oppressive Russian leader of the day: “May God bless and keep the czar (pause) far away from us!”
Even Holocaust jokes, making fun of the Nazis, are not rare.
But my idea of the first Jewish example is actually in the Torah. Exodus 14:11 has the Israelites stuck at the edge of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army approaches. Some of the Israelites are terrified.
“Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?” they ask.
I don’t know if anyone but me reads that as sarcasm. But I imagine it being delivered in a Rodney Dangerfield style, eyes popping and tie being wrenched.
I don’t knock it. After all, they made it across the sea pretty fast. Maybe my jokes will get me through a longer path, too.
Jeffrey Weiss is a longtime reporter who covered religion, faith and morality issues for more than a decade. In December, he was diagnosed with a brain cancer. He’s exploring how a likely end of life should affect his thinking about beliefs and behavior. This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.