A smile starts on the lips, a grin spreads to the eyes, a chuckle comes from the belly; but a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, overflows, and bubbles all around.Carolyn Birmingham
It amazes me how short the distance is between laughter and tears. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced those times when you are laughing so hard that your cheeks hurt, your belly muscles burn, tears begin to stream down your face, and you hope that you don’t pee yourself from laughter. I’ve discovered the opposite can also be just as true. You’re deep into the ugly cry…nose red and running, face wet and tear-stained, and shoulders shaking with sobs…when suddenly the absurdity of the situation or a long-forgotten memory morphs the crying to smiles, chuckles, and laughter.
If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy. Crying and laughing are the same emotion. If you laugh too hard, you cry. And vice versa.— Sid Caesar
Yes, tears and laughter are simply mirrored expressions of the same emotion. They come unbidden and usually without warning or restraint. And yet, a good laugh or a good cry offers a whole range of benefits, from increased immunity to a flood of “feel-good” hormones…both cleanse the soul. And while I appreciate the benefits of a “good cry” and recognizing the interconnectedness of laughter and tears, when given a choice, I’ll still pick laughter every time.
Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.W.h. Auden
One morning during my first year of teaching, I walked into the high school’s main office, intent on completing one of the never-ending bits of bureaucratic business required of teachers. Crossing the room toward the attendance officer’s desk, one of the holes in the floor mat proclaiming Eagle Pride caught the heel of my shoe. As I began to hop, skip, and fly through the air, I beheld horror and amazement on the faces of the three secretaries and assorted high school student-aides who watched dumbfounded. My flight ended as I landed on my bum in the middle of the floor, dress hiked up above my knees, glasses askew, and my dignity splattered all over the walls. Onlookers stared with wide eyes and open mouths. Without skipping a beat, I looked up and said, “And, for my next trick…” Instantly, the entire room’s atmosphere changed as everyone slowly exhaled the breath they didn’t even realize they had been holding and joined me in laughing at the absurdity of my position.
I could have reacted to the situation differently; however, growing up in a family of great storytellers and jokesters, I learned to search for humor in every circumstance. So when I metaphorically slipped on the banana peel, I was ready to see it not as the humiliating situation that it could have been but as some great piece of spontaneous slapstick humor.
When I chose to view the incongruity of the office setting with a teacher sprawled across the floor with laughter, I took control of the situation. I controlled the reaction of the others. My laughter caused them to relax, gave them permission to join the fun, and provided a break from the ordinary. By choosing laughter, I gave the others the gift of laughter as well. I lost my balance with my heel in the floor mat, but I regained it quickly with a quip and a chuckle.
Laughing doesn’t always put you in control. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite. Nearly everyone has had the experience of nervous laughter that comes without restraints at the most inopportune time…with a police officer at the side of the road, during a conference with your boss, or the most dreaded…in church during meditation or prayer. Yet, even during those times, I still think laughter wins out.
In the late 1950s, each child in my Sunday School class had a piece to recite in the annual Easter program. Paul and Steve were selected to say theirs as a duo. The two of them climbed the stairs to the front of the sanctuary and turned to face the congregation. Neither could say a word. They were like deer in the headlights. One of them began to giggle, then the other joined in. They’d stop for a second or two then the giggles and laughter would grab hold of them again. Before long, the entire assembly of children and adults waiting in anticipation for uplifting words regarding resurrection and renewal completely forgot about the story of Jesus and were instead joining in the laughter. It was infectious and highly contagious. As one of the children present that day, I can only tell you that it was terrific! I have no idea what their message was supposed to be, but I continue to carry the sound of the joyful, unbridled laughter that rang out on that glorious Spring morning until this day. In one sense, Paul and Steve lost control of themselves and the situation with their irrepressible laughter, and yet…I don’t think they ever did have to deliver their lines.
Sometimes, choosing laughter is a conscious choice we make in response to that which would cause us to weep if we allowed it. Late-night comedians make a living helping us find the humor where none is apparent. In a sense, it is self-care…a bit of self-protection.
My grandmother had a wonderful sense of humor that was often a little left of center, and oh, what a laugh. When my father died, Grandma was deep into Alzheimer’s. She had been a minister’s wife and always knew just the right thing to say. Even after she had forgotten almost everything else, particularly remembering or understanding that she had just come from the memorial service of her only son, she still retained her manners. Understanding her condition nudged me towards laughter instead of tears as she said goodbye to me after the funeral. She looked up at me and said, “I’m glad we could all be together for such a joyous occasion.” The words and their implication tore at my heart, but I smiled back at her and said, “Yes, I’m so glad we could all be together.” Sometimes, you just have to make a conscious choice to laugh. The alternative is just too painful.
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I was often reminded that this was the fourth Christmas without my husband or my mom. In the evenings especially, I’d get somewhat melancholy, sad, and weepy. Usually, a brief cry would wash away some of the pain and help me regain my equilibrium to move into a sunnier space. Memories of past holidays allowed me to move from tears to moments of laugh-out-loud joy.
The first Christmas after we were married, Dave went Christmas shopping with his friend Dan. He was so proud of the gifts he had selected, and I was looking forward to Christmas morning. I’m sure there were other surprises that morning, but I clearly remember the bathrobe he chose. It was quilted with a zipper up the front that required stepping into it. It was a cheerful little number with schoolhouses, school bells, rulers, and pencils printed on the fabric. Just perfect for a new teacher, he thought. I pulled it from the packaging, and at Dave’s insistence, I began to climb into and draw up the robe. It was tight over my hips, but it was impossible to zip past my ample breast.
“That’s as big as they come! That’s as big as they come!” said Dave incredulously. Just what a woman wants to hear on Christmas morning. He always was a sweet-talker.
“Well, Dave,” I replied. “I don’t feel too bad since you bought this in the girls’ department.” That first Christmas was merely a preview of all the exciting gifts and laughter ahead.
“Laughter is more than just a pleasurable activity…When people laugh together, they tend to talk and touch more and make eye contact more frequently.”
Anne Lamott says Laughter is carbonated holiness. I consider the sharing of a hardy laugh an intimate, sacred act.
Laughter can diffuse an argument. It can lower your stress level and blood pressure. In addition, laughter can shorten the distance between strangers, give ease to visitors, and comfort the worried, the frightened, and the lonely.
Of course, tears come when they will, but when given a choice…Take off your belt, put your false teeth in a cup, throw your head back and let go with a laugh! No, really…let go and laugh. Try ten Ha Ha Ha’s in a row…just for starters. It always beats the alternative!