Some points regarding humor in The Nun's Priest's Tale by Chaucer:
God loves average people, and that’s why he made so many of them. That was what I always told myself in the moments, not-infrequent, when my own mediocrity was painfully evident. But of course it never really comforted me. I always secretly wanted to break free from averageness, to achieve some remarkable and awe-inspiring thing, to impress my friends and family and graze on the greener grass at the right end of the bell curve.
There’s an episode of the show 30 Rock in which Tracy Morgan’s character hopes to win a Golden Globe for his new movie Hard to Watch. The title of the fictional movie is poking fun at the lamentable fact that many of the movies that win today’s most prestigious awards are painful experiences for viewers. The difficulty or impossibility of enjoying these hard-to-watch movies seems to be taken as evidence of their artistic merit. This seems to be precisely wrong: the best art should be joyful, should make us happy, and should be easy to watch even if hard to fully understand or appreciate.
My first motivation to see The Lives of Others was that I heard that William F. Buckley, Jr. said it was the best movie he had ever seen. Presumably, Buckley liked it at least partially because it is a compellingly anti-Communist film, and opposition to Communism was a large part of the 20th century American conservatism he spent his life cherishing and defending. But Buckley was no cretin either – he was educated and thoughtful, and had enough aesthetic sensibility to know a good movie from a bad one.
Anyone who has ever been misled by a mistaken weather forecast knows that the world is full of chaos. Weather systems are influenced by the complex interactions of particles too numerous to count, intricate topographical features of the Earth, and even astronomical phenomena millions of miles away. Even after decades of study, number crunching by powerful supercomputers, and considerable financial incentives, the chaos of nature gives us great difficulty in predicting something apparently simple such as whether and how much it will rain tomorrow.
In a famous scene from the movie Conan the Barbarian, Conan is sitting with some warlords. They hear news of a victory in battle and abruptly begin a mildly philosophical conversation. One of the men says that the victory is good, but he asks the group, what is best? Several of the men offer answers. “The open steppe,” says one, and another chimes in with “a fleet horse.” Falcons and the feeling of wind are also offered as answers.
There are a few possible motives for the common tendency of people to try to impress each other. The first is a desire for gain. If you impress an investor, you might get money from him, and if you impress a beautiful woman, you might get a date from her. But this does not explain all attempts to impress others. People try to impress their friends who are already willing to help them, and they even try to impress strangers who they meet in passing and who they will probably never see again.
Even after many years of compulsory and voluntary education, each of us will understand only a tiny portion of what there is to be understood in the universe. This fact may seem discouraging, but actually it is freeing. It frees us from feeling too concerned about knowing everything, since we never will, at least not in this life. It frees us from some of the pressure of competition, since knowing more than our neighbors seems to matter less when we realize that our neighbors, like us, only know a tiny fraction of what is knowable.