the universal truth

the universal truth

truth chris congdon upstairs project

The family crowded under a canopy erected beside the hole.  The ground was soft and muddy so the funeral director had placed a floor of plywood sheeting upon the ground - maybe as a courtesy to us, or maybe to keep us from tracking dirt into the limo.  As the service began, there was a noise - a little fluttery squeak.  I thought it was the plywood sheets moving against each other, or maybe the rigging of the tent.  But when we were in our places and quiet, it happened again.  My brother caught my eye with one of those, “is that you?” looks.  I discretely shook my head.  It happened again.  Joel and I, independently but simultaneously, noticed that Aunt Lois looked a little uncomfortable and as she squirmed, it happened again.

It is a universal truth. Maybe it is the universal truth.  It transcends religion and supercedes science. It’s truer than a natural law because you don’t have to learn it or prove it.  Four year olds know it.  Sorority sisters know it.  Wall Street brokers know it.  PEO ladies know it (but they won’t admit it).  Junior high school boys definitely know it.  I know it and You know it.  Farting is funny.  

A guy can’t stay somber and controlled forever.  Maybe the heavy emotion of that funeral day needed a release.  My shoulders started shaking, my eyes started watering, my face turned red.  Joel exhibited an identical condition.  My Grandmother was touched to see two of her grandsons so moved by the service.  The two grandsons were very thankful that laughing and crying can look so similar.   

Fart in front of any toddler, of any nationality, ethnicity, race or faith, and they’ll laugh.  They don’t have to be taught to laugh - they just do.  They don’t have to be taught that farting is funny - it just is. In my own developmental experience, my mother worked mightily to instill a sense of etiquette.  In my youngest days we wouldn’t even say the word fart in our home - we’d say toot instead - and Mom would actually prefer that we didn’t talk about it at all.  I had to go to school to learn the word fart from other kids, and when I did, it was a game-changer - it became a word I used ALL THE TIME.  As formidable as Mom is, she’s no match for Mother Nature, who has decreed that farting is funny.

Etched into the lore of our clan are Dad’s famous Tri-State Fart that was heard from Wisconsin to Iowa (he was on the phone), and my brother’s Thanksgiving Day Fart that caused us to abandon a vehicle in the middle of the road.  I, myself, am known to my nephews as Uncle Skunk. I hold the distinction of knocking-out an entire Wal Mart: a burning, poisonous cloud followed me from the back of the store to the checkout lanes where a woman loudly announced, “smells like somebody did somethin’ here!”.  I remained anonymous, but walked to the car with an extra spring in my step and a smile on my face.   

I assure you that the people cited above don’t just go around making extraordinary noises and polluting the atmosphere with abandon - we're capable of appearing well in polite company.  These events were exceptional, and they happened quite a while ago.  We all grow and mature and I’m not sure any of us would behave the same way today.  But, I’m not sure we wouldn’t, either.  

Farting is funny and it is funny that farting is funny.  Farting is natural, biological and chemical and it is something that happens to all of us except my twin sister.  It’s ubiquitous, and universal and amazingly common, so why does it make us laugh?  Why is it funny to be the perpetrator, inflicting the disruption upon others?  Why is it funny to be a witness, catching others in the act?  

I was curious enough to do a little research and I found some articles in smart-guy journals about “incongruity theory” and “unexpected events”.  The idea is that farting is funny because it comes as a complete non sequitur to the rest of our polite lives.  A fart inserts itself as a total distraction, apropos of nothing, into our situation, and then fades away again with no lasting ill effect.  We laugh at the absurdity of the unexpected situation.  This one, for example…

One of our church’s handbell choirs was performing at an event and one ringer, Frances, had some gas to deal with.  She was standing before the gap where two heavy, black, stage curtains came together.  She was wearing a black dress.  She was a black woman.  She thought she could just take a step or two backward, fade into the shadows and dispose of the gas.  Which she did.  But what she didn’t know was that another group, awaiting their turn on stage, had quietly gathered behind those same curtains - a group which witnessed Frances’ backside appear through the curtain, audibly expel, and disappear again.  

Imagine being one of those folks behind the curtain: in those pre-performance moments of hushed tension and focus … that happens.  It was the sort of situation that would dumbfound a person.  Was it an insult? Was it comedy? If not laughter, how would one react?  

A second theory of why farting is funny dealt with shared embarrassment.  As flatulence is universal, so is the understanding of the embarrassment that the offender is enduring.  We’ve all been there, done that.  We understand what they’re going through and we’re sympathetic.  Laughter is a way of acknowledging and minimizing someone else’s discomfort - ha, ha, ha, I feel your pain.  In this sense, we’re laughing with the farter, and our laughter is friendly and comforting - like a group hug, except who wants to hug someone who just farted?  I’ll just stand over here and chuckle, instead.  

Back in my college days I was attending a conference where people took themselves and their organization very seriously.  We were in an older auditorium, with hardwood walls and floors and a domed ceiling, so acoustically, the room was quite lively.  In one of the business sessions a member from another college was recognized by the chair, rose from her seat, and made a compelling case regarding some piece of business that was before the body.  She was a woman of imposing size and held a command-bearing, so we listened as she spoke.  She was eloquent.  She was impassioned.  She went on for many minutes using every oratorical tool.  She began to perspire and feed upon the energy as murmurs of approval rippled through the crowd.  She crescendoed to her grand finale assured of a standing ovation and finally collapsed, exhausted, into her seat.  She collapsed, exhausted, into her seat which was padded with a few inches of cheap foam under the heavy upholstery.  Foam which had expanded with air while she was standing to deliver her speech. Foam which was now quite suddenly compressed, squeezing the air out like a giant whoopie cushion as she sat back down.  She hadn’t actually farted, but it sure sounded like it as the air was squished out of her seat. In the second that should have been the dramatic silence before the ovation, every eloquent word that she had just spoken simply evaporated, and instead of the adoring crowd rising as one to applaud, all two hundred of us simultaneously collapsed into mindless hilarity.  It was one of the priceless incidents of my life.

Were we laughing with her, or at her, or at the situation in general?  I suppose that’s a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and how we answer will shed some light on the core of our personalities.  But let’s not over-intellectualize this - it’s farting that we’re talking about.

To some, the humor of passing gas is something that one should grow out of. Those people probably stopped reading a while ago, and that’s OK - we’ll have more fun without them.  We don’t need their judgments of immaturity or childishness. Even if they’re right, there are a lot worse things to be than childish.  Childhood was was full of curiosity, and messes, and learning, and doing things just to see if you can.  If being mature means staying within limits, being clean about my person, reading books with no pictures and not farting out loud, then I’m not sure that’s what I want to be.  

As with anything, I suppose there’s a balance to found.  One needs to be enough of an adult to face life and interact with others in a courteous and, sometimes, serious way.  And at the same time, I celebrate how liberating it feels to have a relaxed approach to bodily functions and to be able to laugh when humor strikes.  If you’re with me on this, come on over to my place, we’ll enjoy each other’s company.  You open the wine, I’ll cut the cheese.

chris congdon


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