Have you ever laughed at something or someone, not felt right about it, but unsure about exactly what was ‘off’ about it?
Just this week I caught myself laughing about someone struggling with things I've mastered and seem trivial. The laughing inflates myself, denies my journey, distances from others, and now that I am more conscious of its effects, feels truly sickening.
To explain further with an analogy and story, there was a particular moment when I really 'got' this dynamic. It's in a rock climbing context, but gave me a felt experience relevant to any human endeavour and especially coaching.
The context was hearing of the incredible feat of Alex Honnold excelling and pushing the boundaries of in the realms of rock climbing. Searching to learn more about the climb he soloed - Freerider - I read Dan’s blog about the climb and noticed the recent comment down the bottom posted the day the news of Alex achievement: "Why are all the people in the pictures using ropes?".
Initially I thought it was funny - how the context for every other climb (past and future) had shifted through Alex’s recent achievements. That he climbed ropeless could mean that everyone else's achievements are re-framed.
I realised why the positioning and distance in that humour that makes it so hilarious is in the same category as something most of us would instantly recognise as cruel and unpalatable in a real-life, familial context: imagine laughing at a child learning to walk and teasing them because they can’t run a sub 10-second hundred metres?
The wider dynamic is where someone from outside a domain (climbing) hears about the extremities of possibilities (free solo climbing Free-rider) and then looks around for someone joyfully learning in that domain (an average climber), measures, judges and makes a comment (why are all the people in the pictures using a rope) that points not to their achievement and joy, rather their shortcomings. Then someone (me) reads, laughs, and shares the joke with a friend.
Now, I’m obviously taking this far beyond what could be the intention of the commenter in this instance, but the sickening thing that struck me as a dynamic that plays out in other contexts: the way a little laugh could lead to the one being laughed at feeling shame, closing down, and turning away from their learning or developmental trajectory.
In the middle of openly learning, failing and earnestly progressing, just a single comment from someone with no investment could trigger a turn away from that pathway and possibility.
Crushing the climber and halting their innocent ascent for the sake of a laugh.
It’s so easy to do, thoughtlessly, at a distance and when people’s journeys are published on the internet.
Perhaps the person journeying (or journalling) has thick skin, takes it well, and uses it to fuel further efforts?
I wonder too, that in commenting publicly that the funny guy or gal actually unconsciously does to themselves what they do to others - crushing, dismissing, belittling or feeling shame at their own efforts in that or another domain. Feeling better in that moment, but ultimately coming from a distance and creating even more separation.
As someone who laughed, I felt that too. In my laughing I was perhaps releasing the gentle tension of my own potential, crushing or contextualising my little, emerging aspiration to climb a v6 boulder problem by comparing it the world’s best as a trivial matter and not worth pursuing.
My guess too, is this was not Alex intentions in his efforts - it was illuminate the opening possibilities for all humans and climbers, not to cast a shadow over their own efforts.
So while that’s a lot to read into a 10-word comment, but there’s something about it that struck me as a dynamic, recognising how I do it to others, and deeply appreciating all those who gently hold the space of caring for my own learning and opening.
I’m fortunate that I have some, like parents, mentors and teachers, who have chosen not to laugh, and instead demonstrate something different: empathise with the person sharing their efforts and learning, align with their developmental trajectory, see the possibilities they are creating for themselves and others despite the challenges, express appreciation for their generousity in sharing, encourage them and perhaps even join them on their journey.
My experience of that alternative is that it feels open, vulnerable, earnest and intimate.
Finding connection as a human in everyone’s journey, and inspiration in every human’s remarkable achievements.
Not as funny for that moment, sure, but potentially awe-inspiring and enabling for a whole lifetime.