You Know What I Meme

By now, we all know the advice: Wear your masks. Get your shots. And remember your daily dose of memes.

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, according to a recent piece by National Public Radio, internet memes – the contagious jokey or cute images that pop up on Facebook and elsewhere, usually with a pop-culture slant – may have been a key piece of psychological survival during the pandemic. NPR cited a study that found people who viewed memes had higher levels of humor, more positive feelings and less stress than those who didn’t. The effect was even stronger If the meme was directly about COVID-19.

Short version: if you’re that guy who’s been sharing dad jokes and cartoons, your work has not been in vain.

This might sound a little odd. After all, it seems to fly in the face of several “common sense” assumptions, like our mistrust of social media and an urge to keep from stressing out over too much pandemic news. And for heaven’s sake, isn’t serious stuff supposed to be taken … well, seriously?

Well. Maybe not.

Maybe, in fact, a little silliness is just what the doctor ordered.

It’s at moments like this that I like to invoke one of the most profound philosophers of our times, Roger Rabbit. On its surface, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is sheer goofy slapstick, the sort of chaos you can only get when an army of wild-eyed cartoon characters has to battle the plots of an extremely hammy Christopher Lloyd. But in a quieter moment – relatively speaking – the cartoon Roger takes a moment to convince his cynical human friend Eddie of the value of comedy.

“A laugh can be a very powerful thing,” Roger insists. “Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”

Let me be clear: there’s laughter and then there’s laughter. We’ve all become a little too familiar with the cruel kind, the sort that mocks victims and makes light of tragedy. That’s a weapon turned on the weak, and it’s not the sort of thing we need now or ever.

But there’s a different sort of laughter.

There’s the kind that pulls people together through a shared crisis, like the World War II-era English in the midst of the Blitz. One shopkeeper, after an air raid, put a sign on his damaged business reading “More Open Than Usual.”

There’s the kind that gives a moment of relief and distraction in the midst of too much pain. I’ve written many times about my wife Heather’s chronic illnesses … and about the silliness that gets us through, whether it’s bad Bob Dylan imitations or setting the names of her conditions to music. (No, we haven’t yet tried setting her conditions to Bob Dylan music, but give us time.)

There’s the laughter that hits back at the cruel. Or that exposes absurdity. Or that opens minds as well as mouths. (I’ve lose track of how many times I’ve posted the punchline “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” to make a point). The sort that can make people aware of the world in a way that makes it more bearable – and maybe even helps them think about it in a new way.

So maybe memes aren’t such a bizarre tool after all. Maybe, in a time when so much is off-kilter, they’re just cockeyed enough to make sense.

The more I think about it, the more I like it.

After all, in these challenging times, we must live within our memes.

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