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Pillars of Joy: Day 3 (Humor)

“If you start looking for the humor in life, you’ll find it. You will stop asking, Why me? and start recognizing that life happens to all of us.”

This is the third of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I have never really understood gloomy people. Sure, maybe some of them are harboring serious trauma or painful secrets, but I get the feeling that many are just sour by nature. Why? There is so much absurdity in the world. There is so much to laugh at all the time, right? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been in very high spirits lately, so I guess I can see why people aren’t always bursting at the seams with laughter.

That’s what I realized today: my ex-wife no longer has control over what I do, but her shadow still lurks in the edges of my mind. It’s not really fear; it’s a sort of peripheral dread that prevents me from completely letting go because I know there’s going to be a next time. There will always be another fight, another accusation, another paranoid retaliation, and my kids will always be in the crossfire. She stole more than a decade of my life, and she will continue to pilfer every bit of happiness she can.

Still, I am not dead inside (or outside, thankfully). Since I got out, I have experienced some of the genuine laughter and enjoyment that I missed for so many years. My family and friends have not treated me with pity or with kid gloves. We have had some hard conversations, and no doubt there are more to come, but we have laughed so much that it’s like I never disappeared at all. I miss my children more than I can even bear to think about sometimes, and the sound of my own laughter is a rare source of hope for me.

In The Book of Joy, Abrams describes how humor is a powerful tool for defusing tension and reducing conflict. Studies have long shown that it has physical health benefits, giving credence to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” I absolutely believe that because I’ve seen what it can do. Maybe it doesn’t cure cancer or prevent epidemics, but it most certainly soothes a weary soul.

Archbishop Tutu put it this way: “Life is hard, you know, and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies and cruelties and uncertainties that we face.” It’s why movies have this trope where a really tense situation will be resolved by some unexpected silliness that disarms the characters who are in conflict with each other. (Of course, I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but I’m sure one will come to me at 3 am when I’m lying awake thinking about it). Truly, there is sometimes no other response to the unrelenting insanity we see in the world around us. The United States is currently in a bizarre, simultaneous state of utter horror and absolute hilarity. You just can’t make this stuff up.

That’s why I like how Abrams explains the nature of humor. He says, “Jokes are funny precisely because they break our expectations and help us to accept the unexpected.” Comedy is often about defying our expectations (or perfectly meeting them in surprising ways), so it’s easy to see why finding the humor in our lives is so important. If we took everything as seriously as some people think we should, no one would ever laugh. No more chuckles or giggles, no more titters or guffaws, no more synonyms for laughter at all.

If you’ve ever heard a toddler let out a genuine belly laugh, you know exactly what joy sounds like. That’s what we should all sound like. Not all the time, obviously. Grandma’s funeral is hardly the place for that kind of thing (depending on your family, I suppose). There is so much suffering, so much strife, so much hatred and anger and jealousy and fear and cruelty in the world. If we don’t find ways to laugh at it, it will consume us. It turns out, laughing is pretty serious business.

Up next: Acceptance

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