Benjamin Franklin took solace in the fact that even if his experiments with electricity came to naught he would at least have learned a valuable lesson in humility from which we can all benefit: that despite all our best efforts nature will always have the inescapable upper hand.
Bananas perform a similarly instructive function. At the very instant we forget the fragility of our situation, strutting around as we do precariously on two legs thinking big thoughts and making sophisticated plans, a discarded banana skin, in cahoots with gravity, will provide a reminder.
But maybe it’s in that very moment we slip on the banana skin that we live most authentically; we can’t avoid smiling at the situation — even if it hurts. It’s a perfect moment, the banana skin unexpectedly entering our life, debunking our smug assumptions and our confident human swagger, toppling us from our spot atop the evolutionary tree to fall all the way down to a painful and undignified spraddle on the ground.
We can’t complain; everything about it is funny. The fruit to start with — essentially funny. The act of eating and then discarding a spent banana — of flinging the very skin that later spells someone’s personal disaster — is funny. The falling is usually funny, especially if it involves the launching of a cup of coffee or the contents of shopping bags, or an amusing if improper exclamation. It’s somehow funnier when the person looks around for the banana skin and — although very rare — we can only hope they slip again when trying to get up. Of course, it’s best if any injury is restricted to the ego but I have to say that there can be a fair degree of minor scrapes and bruises before the situation loses all of its humor.
We laugh at ourselves in these situations, even if we’re on our own and have no-one else to laugh for. We all have our moments, most often not involving bananas, when something happens to us that may be embarrassing, inconvenient, slightly painful, annoying — but that we can’t help finding amusing. I think invariably these moments, like the banana moment and the failed electrical experiments, remind us that we are inescapably subject to random natural intervention at any time.
For example, every so often I forget to take my glasses off before putting on a pullover. By the time I realize my mistake, glasses are askew after poking me in the eye, pullover is half way on and half way off, arms are stuck, naturally I can’t see what’s going on and I find myself cursing unproductively before smiling at my own misfortune.
Self-inflicted misfortune includes squirting myself in the eye while squeezing a lemon.
Technology joins the game when I mistake my phone for my mouse and slide it around the desk uselessly until the penny drops.
“Idiot,” I think.
Humility, or the loss of it, is what makes these moments funny. And spotting the humor is what makes us appropriately humble. If we were humble enough to start with, these would just be unfortunate events.
And without that reminder, Franklin’s experiments would have been merely a waste of time.