Joyful Laughter

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Some years back, when Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, he invited an old gentleman to appear as a guest. This fellow (who was nearly one hundred years old) had no claim to fame, no talent or movie credits, but was a plain man full of homespun wisdom. Carson asked him questions, and the fellow shot back commonsense answers. This fellow's down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to living made the audience howl with delight. This fellow had an opinion about everything from marriage and sex to money and taxes. And he never backed away from any difficult question, but shot straight from the hip. Some of his observations about life were so wonderfully simple that Carson could only smile and nod in agreement.

Mostly, however, this fellow laughed. And he enjoyed making other people laugh. When Carson asked him how he stayed so young, the fellow talked about "being as young as you feel." When Carson asked him whether he had some secret to living that he would like to share with others, the fellow leaned back and told the audience that it was all really quite simple: "Every day when I get up I have two choices. I can choose to be miserable. Or I can choose to be happy. And I choose to be happy. It's as simple as that."

I enjoyed listening to this old fellow because he had many valid points about life and some keen observations about living to share. Mostly, though, I enjoyed his infectious laughter and the way he was able to elicit laughter from others. That is a rare art, and I admire those folks who can make me laugh, especially when I am feeling low.

Laughter— it has often been described— the best medicine. Reader's Digest even has a regular column, a collection of humorous anecdotes, that takes its title from this maxim. There is truth here. For of all the emotions that can keep us alive and lift us up, humor is the most potent. What would life be without laughter?

Not long ago, at a funeral, I invited family and friends to stand and offer memories or stories about the deceased: a forty-year-old man who had died in a freak accident. I was amazed when the mother stood to give a testimony about her son. Through tears, but with a controlled and passionate determination, she told us how her son was admired by family and friends as a peacemaker. Often, when other people were arguing, her son would step in, make some humorous remark and reduce the two adversaries to laughter. Others admired his sense of humor, and his ability to make people laugh saved many from becoming enemies. In essence, his sense of humor defined him as a human being and served as his greatest gift to others.

I suppose that is why we are fascinated by stand-up comedians, men and women who can get up on a stage and, for a few minutes, make us forget our troubles and allow us to laugh at ourselves. When we learn to take life less seriously, learn to loosen up a little and poke fun at ourselves, life becomes more enjoyable and entertaining. Those who can't laugh, or refuse to laugh, at the strange and sordid affairs of life are missing out on some great fun.

This is one of the reasons, I believe, why the television show M*A*S*H* was such a hit and is still one of the most popular reruns on the air. M*A*S*H* was set against the backdrop of the Korean War, and in terms of dramatic presentation and realism, never shied away from the stark misfortunes and atrocities of war. Every show was written and acted out with these realities in full view. Nearly every episode dealt with some facet of human suffering or misfortune.

But the show also managed to show how humor, even in wartime situations, helped keep people sane and, in fact, was a necessary ingredient to the health and well-being of the doctors, nurses and wounded soldiers who moved through the M*A*S*H* unit. In many episodes this humor came out most effectively in the operating room during moments of intense pressure, when death was imminent and the sufferings of war were most immediate. Without Hawkeye's jokes and shenanigans, the show would have been a flop. But we also have the idea that, without humor, the war itself would have been unbearable.

Laughter helps us to cope with difficult situations and can help to make every day a bit brighter.

I think there is much truth in the notion that we need laughter to secure our sanity and to keep us moving through life with a smile on our face, instead of a scowl. Laughter, in fact, might even be the medicine that makes all the other medicines work better.

At least some doctors think so.

Over the years I have talked to many doctors who seem to be of the opinion that humor and a light-hearted approach to sickness may actually save some of us. More and more, we read about the relationship between attitude and healing, about the spiritual and emotional forces that come to bear upon our physical selves and our health. By and large, I think most doctors and experts would agree that a person who has a good attitude, who can laugh and joke and cut up in the hospital bed before and after a surgical procedure, is far more likely to recover. And if not, at least he or she can go out smiling.

One doctor I know has even gone so far as to say that he prefers not to operate on individuals who are so down that they believe they are not going to make it. According to this physician, folks who are pessimistic about their chances or who can't find even a touch of humor in their lives are far more likely to develop postsurgical complications. He believes that the men and women who can laugh with him before surgery, who can joke and smile with their families, are prime candidates for full recovery.

Laughter can make that kind of a difference in our lives. It might even prove to be the difference between life and death. And there is every reason to believe that laughter is a spiritual force.

There is a chaplain at a large hospital in Indianapolis who makes a habit of not only praying with the patients, but also making them laugh when he enters their room. He wears funny-looking ties as he makes his rounds, or sometimes displays a fake arrow through his head, or carries a hand puppet. He has a full array of jokes for every occasion and is quick with a quip or a quote. His ministry is spiritual, but it comes out in the form of laughter, in the essence of joy.

He believes that being healthy, being spiritual, involves the whole person. In his philosophy, when we are well, we laugh. When we are secure in the love of our family and friends, we smile and enjoy ourselves. Faith teaches this, too. I've taken this approach in my own ministry. In my office I have several pictures of Jesus— creations to be sure— show Jesus in various postures of smiling, delight and hearty laughter. Over the years I've received many comments about these pictures, mostly favorable. Usually people will make comments like "I've never thought about it that way before, but I'm sure Jesus laughed" or "Wow! That puts a whole new spin on the meaning of joy" or "I suppose, if anyone knew how to laugh, it was Jesus."

Every now and again, however, someone will look at those pictures and pucker up like a prune. They just can't seem to accept the image of a smiling or laughing Jesus. They want only a sorrowful Jesus, a sad Jesus, a serious and suffering Jesus. The image of a happy Jesus upsets their stereotype of faith, and they don't know how to deal with it. It's as if their image of God will not allow for laughter; it's as if they have no room for laughter as a spiritual or life-changing force.

It's a strange thing, but often it is the most "religious" folks who have a problem with laughter. They just can't seem to find a connection between God and humor. To them, everything associated with faith should be approached with the utmost seriousness. They walk around looking as if they have been sucking on green persimmons for the better part of a year rather than enjoying the presence and joy of a living God.

Folks can go around scowling if they want to. But I'm keeping my pictures of the laughing Jesus. To me, they are very comforting, and I find in them a representation of God's humor toward the world.

Somehow, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that God is laughing at us anyway. The only thing is, God's laughter comes out in many different forms— most often through others. All we have to do is listen.

When you and I think about reasons for laughing, bad situations don't come immediately to mind. But how many times have you said to yourself or someone else after a difficulty: "Someday we will look back on this and laugh"?

My wife and I do this all the time. Maybe we'll be in the middle of an argument, or one of us will say something stupid, and then we will start laughing. Most arguments, after all, are based on childish disagreements. If we took the time to think about what we were arguing about from the get-go, we'd have to laugh at our own pettiness most of all. Or, as my grandmother puts it, "Most arguments don't amount to a hill of beans."

Looking back on some of the major arguments in our marriage, my wife and I agree that one of our biggest disagreements occurred the first day of our honeymoon. We were vacationing in Myrtle Beach and were returning to our hotel for the night when I made a driving mistake (I'll go ahead and take the blame for this one even though I know I am right!). I had stopped at an intersection when the light turned yellow, and my wife thought I should have proceeded through the intersection like a bat out of hell (perhaps she was anxious to get back to the room!).

One word led to another, an argument ensued and before we knew it, we were engaged in a mortal combat concerning our differing driving philosophies. She was pointing and screaming at me, and I was screaming at her. At one point I slapped my wife on the knee— than I intended to, much too forceful for her taste— immediately I had visions of sleeping in the hotel lobby near the vending machines.

Somehow, before we returned to the hotel, I managed to smooth-talk my way into her heart again, and she actually let me in the room. Later (much later!), we were able to laugh about this argument. In fact, it is one of the few things we actually remember about our honeymoon, and it has served us well over the years, especially since we visited the lawyer and signed our agreement never to ride together in the same car.

Laughter can crop up anywhere— the supermarket, at the office, even at the dinner table.

An older friend of mine talks about the morning he and his wife sat down to eat breakfast. She was at the stove cooking up a mess of bacon and eggs. When they sat down together to eat, my friend casually reached over, took the salt and pepper shakers, and doctored up his eggs. Immediately his wife exploded, "Don't do that! I salted and peppered those eggs while they were frying in the pan!"

"Why on earth would you do that?" my friend shot back. "Everyone knows you salt and pepper food at the table."
"No," his wife insisted, "you salt and pepper food while it's cooking."
"At the table!"
"While it's cooking!"
"At the table!"
"While it's cooking!"

They went back and forth like this for some time before one of them eventually broke down and started laughing. Here they were, two grown people, arguing about salt and pepper.

Such arguments may seem paltry, but I've known couples who have ended their marriages over less satisfying arguments than that. Sometimes laughter is the only thing that saves two people from killing each other.

Before a couple has their first argument about how to squeeze the toothpaste tube, or how to balance the checkbook, or how to make a bed, they should learn to laugh together. That's my theory. Without laughter, even the little things can get under the skin, infect a relationship and destroy it. Possessing the ability to find humor in the mundane affairs of living together is a life-saving quality.

Humor can even lighten the air during moments of intense stress. A story told years ago by a retired bishop when I was in seminary related such a case. It seems this bishop and three of his Episcopal pals were on a transatlantic flight to Europe back in the 1950s. They were seated near the rear of the plane— old four-engine prop job— a woman seated just a few rows ahead of them let out a blood-curdling scream. A stewardess came running down the aisle, and the woman proceeded to gesture toward the window where, on the wing, one of the four propellers had ground to a halt.

"Look out there," the frightened woman told the stewardess. "That propeller is not moving! Something's wrong. We're going to crash!"

The stewardess tried to calm the passenger, but the woman insisted the plane was going to crash. "We're going down! Look— propeller is not moving!"

The stewardess calmly explained why there was no danger. "This plane has four engines. If we have to, we can fly with only one engine. So you see, there's nothing to be frightened about."

For a moment it appeared that the woman accepted the explanation and would remain calm, but each time the stewardess passed, the woman pointed out the window toward the stalled propeller. "We've got to do something," she insisted.

"Turn back. Set this thing down. We're in trouble."

Suddenly the stewardess turned around and noticed the four clergymen sitting at the rear of the plane. She walked back to the bishop and his cohorts. "Are you pastors?" she asked.

"We're bishops," came the reply, "on our way to a big episcopal summit in Europe."

"Oh," the stewardess sighed. "Thank God. Now I can put that woman's mind at ease once and for all."

With that word, the bishops watched as the stewardess approached the woman.

The stewardess tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Ma'am, did you know that on board this plane there are four bishops? Now, don't you think that with four bishops on board, surely God will watch over us? I mean, there's no way we are going to crash with four bishops on this plane."

The woman turned in her seat, glanced back at the four smiling bishops. She turned to the other side and stared out the window at the immobile propeller. Then she looked up at the stewardess and said, "Well, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather have four good engines than four bishops any day."

Now think for a moment about the question "What makes you laugh?" No doubt you would be able to produce a nice list. You might even have difficulty getting to the end of it.

Like most things in life, when we sit down and produce a mental list of blessings and highlights, we come to realize very quickly how fortunate we are and how truly good life has been. As we go about our days, working and hoping and striving for the future, we can miss the here-and-now moments and the one-of-a-kind events that will live forever in our memory. It doesn't take much to set us on edge and keep us from enjoying the little things. That's where laughter comes in. And that's why we need it.

I write a column called "Malebag" for a bridal magazine. Each issue affords me the opportunity to explore another dimension of marriage from a male perspective— the title of the column.

A few issues back I wrote about the humorous habits of the average American male. My research for this column consisted of conversations with friends, a few phone calls and a bit of reading in psychology journals. But all things pointed to the same conclusion: Men find humor in certain television shows and situations, and the male laugh-o-meter is generally tuned differently than the female.

Consider, for example, the type of humor of the Three Stooges. Most men are reduced to tears by the crazy antics and slapstick humor of these idiots. Most women, on the other hand, consider these antics to be childish and a complete waste of time. Women generally don't laugh at physical humor.

While writing this column, I also found that, according to several studies of male and female habits, men tend to touch other men far more often than women touch other women. This is especially true when men laugh and joke with one another. Men will generally slap each other on the back or the thigh following the punch line of a joke. They will lean toward each other and sometimes offer a fake punch to the ribs. Women, on the other hand, more frequently laugh and joke with one another at a distance. Male humor tends to lean toward the visual and the physical. Women's humor tends to lean toward the auditory and the cerebral. These, of course, are broad generalizations, but I think they hold true in the marketplace of laughter. The differences between the sexes are often the source of some of our richest humor.

Comic strips, especially, play on the male/female differences. Strips like Blondie, Andy Capp, Hagar the Horrible and The Born Loser all poke fun at male/female relationships and stereotypes. In the comic strip Blondie, Dagwood is often portrayed as a "typical" man, a fellow with little feeling for romance or communication. Blondie, on the other hand, always seems to have the perfect answer for Dagwood and the family. Likewise, Andy Capp would rather spend time with his friends, and his wife always has to bail him out of trouble. Even Hagar the Horrible— real man's man— no match for his wife when it comes to wit or a test of wills. The Born Loser and his wife are often portrayed as a typical married couple who can't seem to win at anything. A great many of these comic strips address aspects of marriage and love that may remind us of ourselves and help us to laugh at our situations.

A great many jokes also hit upon aspects of marriage that often remind us of ourselves. Such is the case of the older gentleman who was being examined by his doctor. When the doctor finished he said, "How old did you say you were, sir?"

"Eighty-eight," came the reply.

"Eighty-eight! Sir, you have the body of a sixty-year-old. What's your secret?"

The fellow explained: "Well, when my wife and I got married, we agreed that we would settle every argument in the following manner: When she got mad, she would go to the kitchen to calm down. When I got mad, I would keep my mouth shut and go outside until I calmed down."

The doctor looked puzzled. "I don't understand," he said. "How has that helped you to stay so fit?"

"Well," the fellow explained, "let's just say that I've lived an outdoor life."

Often, when I'm reading the newspaper, I guffaw at the plights of human beings in all of their resplendent glory. Some of the true-life accounts of human foibles and mistakes are the best humor we can find. Or, as the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. We don't have to look past our newspapers to find a reason to laugh.

In other news, a Belgian thief was once caught in the act of burglarizing a house. As he fled the scene, he exited out a back door, ran past policemen and guards, scaled a nine-foot wall topped with barbed wire, dropped to the ground, and found himself inside the city prison.

Every day it seems, if we read the newspaper or listen to the news with an ear for humor, we can find something to laugh about. Someone, somewhere, is making a fool of himself. Somebody else is giving us a reason to laugh at the strange twists and turns of life.

Folks who want to hear or see only doom and gloom are missing out on quite a funny ride. They are also missing an opportunity to be happy.

I've got a friend, Charlie, who bears a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders— famous fried-chicken king. Charlie is nearing one hundred years of age, and yet he is full of the vim and vigor of life. He loves to laugh, and he is constantly on the lookout for tidbits of humor and laughable quotes. He collects these in a notebook every month and sends out a newsletter to friends and family. I'm on his mailing list.

Last month he sent me a collection of quotes that he had gleaned from various sources. I pass a few of them along to you.

Waking up in the morning is a matter of mind over mattress.

You know you've reached middle age when your weight training consists of standing up.

Going to the beach is like cleaning the attic— never know what you're going to find in trunks.

Stockroom clerk: someone who's shelf-employed.

By the time you're rich enough to sleep late, you're so old you wake up early every morning.

Pop singer: someone who sings through his nose by ear.

Once you and I have an idea that we want to live well, we might as well learn to laugh. Life's too short to make it any other way.

Just ask my friend Charlie.

(c)1998 Todd Outcalt. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from The Best Things in Life Are Free by Todd Outcalt. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

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