What’s So Funny

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in BOYHOOD

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in BOYHOOD

It’s good to laugh at how obtuse we all can be: looking directly at what we want, at what we need, but, believing it has to be harder than that, turning the opposite direction and then spending the rest of our lives searching for it. It is the stuff of comedy. It was brought resoundingly home for me at a screening of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood. In a scene toward the end of the movie, a young man and woman and their friends—all incoming freshmen in college—ingest some psychedelic mushrooms and go for a hike in the desert. At one point, they rest and the woman tells the man something on the order of, “I have problems with the phrase ‘seize the moment.’ It doesn’t seem right. I don’t think we seize the moment; I think the moment seizes us.” It sounded right. The audience seemed to agree.

The young man also agreed with her, and then added earnestly and with a touch of wonder, “I’ve noticed that it’s always now.”

The audience burst out laughing.

At first, I was taken aback by the reaction. There was nothing funny about what he’d said. It’s a fundamental teaching of Buddhism, pointing to a truth that we overlook all the time. I mean, if it’s not now, then when, exactly, is it? And then it dawned on me what was so funny. His statement was so obvious that it was ridiculous. Of course it’s always “now.” Only somebody tripping would think it was a profound insight.

Yet we so seldom live life as if it were taking place right now. Instead, we get swept up by things we said or did or that other people said or did, or we get lost in things we have yet to do, or, more often, that we would like to do but won’t, and we end up doing just about anything but fully tending to what is happening right here, right now. Expecting the realization that it’s “now” to be profound is only more of the same problem. Who said anything was profound? We do. We determine that this is profound but that isn’t. Granted, sometimes the profundities we construct are beautiful, veritable cathedrals of what the human intellect and imagination can do. But that’s all profundity is. A city of the gandharvas, cathedrals in the air.

So what’s funny about what the young man said isn’t really what he said; it’s that we laugh at what he said. As Paul Westerberg once sang, “He who laughs first didn’t get the joke.” We don’t get the joke, and that’s something we can all laugh at.

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