Do you remember those long vacations on the road, when you and your siblings pushed your parents to the point where your father pulled the car to the side of the road, turned around, and started giving you the “I've had it!” speech? Do you also remember knowing if you made eye contact with your brother or sister, the giggles you were barely containing would explode into laughter so loud the car doors would blow off? Sensing this, your mother would hiss, “This isn't funny!” True. Facing the prospect of being dragged one by one out of the car and getting a couple of licks was sobering, but sometimes humor is the best way to deal with the bad times life throws at you.
Unfortunately, as we get older, our problems get bigger. Today, economic, social, political, and even health issues are intertwined more than ever, and we are bombarded with them before our first cup of coffee. Not long ago, we could turn the news, radio, or computer off to get a break, but now there are reminders everywhere we look. Even professional comedians are taking a hit.
However, it's important that we keep laughing. Everyone's heard of the physical benefits of laughter. It strengthens your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure, boosts your pain tolerance, as well as your immunity, and helps improve your sleep. On the psychological side, when you're laughing, you can't focus on negativity. It helps you realize you've gotten through difficult times before and gives you the strength to go on.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine, Nancy Perry Eaton, returned to our hometown to care for her mother, who was facing the end stages of Alzheimer's. Not only did she go through the heartbreak of seeing that once strong, intelligent, loving woman wither before her eyes, but she also had to deal with the day-to-day issues of indifferent staff members at the assisted living facility in which she'd placed her mother and many other instances where her mother wasn't getting the care she needed. But I'd known her since junior high, and she'd always say her grandfather told her, “Just as soon laugh as cry.” Even when her mother no longer recognized her as her daughter, but as “that nice lady who visits me,” they both would sit there and laugh and giggle at everything that was funny. And everything was funny. That laughter not only helped her deal with the serious illness, but it also gave her an outlet for the irony of that illness, the irony that she was becoming the parent to the woman who had raised her.
Humor is especially important when dealing with death. Grief takes you to a place of isolation, cutting you off from society, as if you were alone and had no control over your life. However, with laughter, just one little joke can reconnect you with those around you and give you back your sense of control, even if it's just temporary.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie “Steel Magnolias” takes place at a funeral. Sally Fields' character is burying her daughter, a young mother who has died unexpectedly due to complications from a kidney transplant. Standing apart from her closest friends, she finally loses her composure, railing, “I want to know why (Shelby's) life is over! I wish I could understand!” Finally, she cries, “I just want to hit somebody til they feel as bad as I do! I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard!”
Just when the tension is unbearable, one of the women grabs the woman next to her, Ouiza Boudreaux, the town's curmudgeon, and pushes her to the forefront, saying, “Here! Hit her! Slap her! We'll sell t-shirts saying 'I slapped Ouiza Boudreux!'...Half of Chinquapin County would give their eyeteeth to take a whack at Ouiza!” At first the others stare in shock, but gradually the tension is broken, and the sobs turn to laughter. Where the mother had been standing apart from her friends, she has moved closer to the group, and they are now laughing together.
From those childhood worries of making your father pull the car over, to adult fears, and eventually to our final stages, we have to laugh. Laughter is a gift. It keeps us sane in an insane world. And if you can't think of anything to laugh at, think of a baby in the throws of a complete, rapturous belly laugh. In our adult lives, we should take a lesson from those just starting out. I dare you to picture a baby laughing and not laugh yourself!