Recovery, Humor, and the Healing Power of Play

The following was a post I never had a chance to publish in the wake of my surgery recovery. Since lots of folks asked about it, I figured I’d share it this week.


My legs throb and ache with every step. It’s been just under a week since surgery, but my doctors want me to be on them as soon as possible. The muscles need to swell so that scar tissue won’t undo their work, they say; so here I am, stomping around the house way sooner than I’d like to be.

The smaller muscles on my lower legs are too sore to react quickly; I have trouble without my crutches. Four stinging incisions, two on each shin, feel stretched to the point of tearing. But I have to make it to the kitchen. My gait is awkward and stompy.

Behind me, I hear the mimicked sounds of a giant monster stomping across the ground. I turn around to see my husband smiling. He roars with a face twisted into mock-anger, his best attempt at a Godzilla roar. He mimes stomping along behind me, making rumbling sounds with his mouth that he can’t make with his feet lest we upset the downstairs neighbors.

“Stop it!” I tease in my “You’re in trouble but not really” tone, and we both know I don’t mean it. “I’m not a giant monster!” I’m beaming now.

“Stace-zilla!” he proclaims, still smiling. He mimics picking up and eating some villagers. I genuinely laugh out loud. I take a few more awkward steps. He mimics the tiny voices of people fleeing from under me. We have a dark sense of humor.

I finally lurch into the kitchen, pick up a towel, and throw it at him as I make my way to the fridge. When I get there, he stops eating villagers and roaring, and instead offers to go in after the seltzer for me; it still hurts too much for me to crouch.

We would never make the Godzilla jokes about other people with abnormal gaits; we would never even think them. But between us, in a shared and safe context, the joke is okay, it’s playful. And laughter is the best medicine. Play is an expression of healing.

Play and humor have a lot of overlap. I hesitate to say that humor is *a form of* play because the similarities are more important than the ontology, but there’s a real argument to be made there. Jokes require a set-up, a contractual obligation between the joke-teller and the audience that involves the audience situating itself within the joke-teller’s fictional world. This fictional world looks a lot like a Magic Circle, and arguments for and against a joke’s real-world impact question whether jokes should  be “taken seriously” in the same way we’ve been arguing for decades about how “magic”—that is to say how permeable—the Magic Circle really is.

The real question is not “are jokes serious?” but rather “how much does the real world factor into the joke’s fictional space?” There are complicated issues of context, safety, and understood intent to be wrestled with as well. In the end, it all boils down to “what are we laughing at and why?”

It’s safe for my husband to make this particular joke because it’s an acknowledgement that I’m not at my best. He’s not mocking me, or even really pointing out that I have a non-normative gait. He’s pointing out the contrast with our version of normal. It’s an attempt to lighten what is honestly a tough and painful situation.  It’s moving on from that with love and levity. And it’s deeply personal and unique to us. This joke’s fictional world is extremely fictional.

Coming back from the kitchen, my husband pipes right up with the Godzilla noises again. I hardly notice the pain in my legs this time, as I giggle and shuffle my way back to the couch. Once I’m back, he brings me an extra pillow and some hot chocolate I didn’t even see him make.