Hamburger Humor: Keeping Wits Among Absurdity
Freefalling through empty space, Dr. Lew Hamburger soaked in the sky, the weightlessness, the view of the earth unlike anything he’d experienced before strapping himself to a tandem instructor 10,500 feet in the air and jumping out of a plane. Known for his humor in times of distress, even Lew was silent in awe of this moment, not that anyone would have heard him anyway except for a few birds and the clouds.
Having a signed his life away in a slew of release forms, Lew laughed to think what his lawyer friends would say even as he joked with the instructor as the plane door swung open.
“Does anyone ever stop at this point?” quipped Lew before stepping into nothingness for a 45 second free fall before the rip cord was pulled and the two divers, one seasoned - one newbie, floated to earth.
Lew now recommends the experience as valuable therapy to his patients, especially depressed ones, to help them face their personal fears; because, in sky-diving, “you just go and you think if I can get past this fear I can do almost anything.”
“It’s all about trust and realizing how simple life really is,” shares Lew, who is often asked about his own story when trust in a terrorist’s ability to hold his weapon was the only thing between Lew and sudden death – a moment which infused in Lew the ability to look at the way he handled life in a whole new light.
It was the late seventies and Lew went to work like any other day. Sitting in his office, he wasn’t prepared for the angry gun-men who entered the building and forced out men and woman with machetes and guns. Hearing them enter his floor, he attempted to hide with a secretary in a closet only to be found and dragged out.
Several hostages sustained ugly wounds from the machetes as they were brought to one central holding area in the building. Near them, an office was rearranged to behead the hostages as the terrorists saw fit. Fortunately the room was never put to its intended use. In one of the other buildings attacked, a man was killed. In Lew’s building the terrorist collected their unwilling participants in their charade of religious revenge.
“Several hostages sustained ugly wounds from the machetes as they were brought to one central holding area in the building. Near them, an office was rearranged to behead the hostages as the terrorists saw fit.”
Getting 70 plus people to the bathroom became a logistical issue, and when it was Lew’s turn one of the gunmen began to untie the tight knots that held Lew’s arms behind his back.
“Who tied these damn knots?” asked the frustrated man who no more wanted to deal with the knots than worry with whether Lew made it to the bathroom.
“I did and I’d kill that man if Allah would let me,” said the terrorist who had found Lew and the secretary in the closet, and lifted his weapon in Lew’s direction.
“Put the gun down. There will be plenty of time for killing,” said another terrorist, waving off the threatening words with impatience, as Lew’s eyes flew from man to man, not exactly sure how this would end, thinking of his family and his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah planned for the coming Saturday. Would he be there for it?
“Well, if he is still here when we start, he’ll die first,” continued the defiant gunmen, determined to have the last word.
The man still struggling with Lew’s knots asked, “Do you still need to go to the bathroom?”
“I think I just did,” replied Lew, unable to hold back a little humor in the situation, despite the utter gravity of it.
Now labeled the number one target, he sat back down in the room with the other hostages. His colleague whispered, “What’d you come back here for? We don’t know whether he is a good shot or not!”
Nervous giggles broke the silence and Lew instantly realized what humor could contribute to help people through the toughest, scariest of times. He had to give an ironic smile himself.
Several days would pass before three Arab ambassadors negotiated their release, using the Koran as their guide. Early Saturday morning at 3 AM, the hostages were allowed to leave and join their families at a local church.
Shortly after reacquainting, Lew’s daughter asked “Are we still having my Bat Mitzvah today?” A simple “you bet” was all that was said. He was relieved to be there period, with his family and friends. Working years in disaster work and trauma care, Lew would see many more people struggle to come to terms with their various personal struggles. He would often tell others that once an incident is over (like in domestic abuse or rape), you can choose not to let what happened to you define you.
“You can choose not to be the victim anymore,” says Lew. Coming from a man who grew up with the last name Hamburger, Lew learned the value of laughter to diffuse many tense situations, from cranks calls to being called out in the army right when you want to be invisible.
Through with his sky-diving debut, Lew would share “If I’d let my fears rule me, I wouldn’t have experienced this.” Through his own traumas, including the hostage situation, he says, “I can’t let my fear rule me. You have to find humor in the mess and move on.”
Bio: Dr. Lew Hamburger worked in psychotherapy and social work for most of his career, mainly with people suffering from pretty heavy stuff - depression, suicide, trauma. He also worked with Katrina survivors and now volunteers with a fire department as a trauma counselor who assists on calls. After years of being a therapist, he learned that humor is essential. He now speaks on the topic and has presented at humor conferences. He also wrote a guidebook called “Can't Find the Will Power?” available on Amazon.com.
Thank you Lew, for sharing your Story with us.
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