Way #21: Laughter Is Serious Business
Laughter is a deeply spiritual emotion. Understand the dynamics of laughter and use it wisely.
The list of Jewish comedians is long. The Talmud even says when the great sage Rav lectured to thousands of students on serious Torah topics, he always started with a joke. Why?
Jokes have the power to grab our attention and focus our mind. Laughter can snap us out of melancholy, put things back into perspective, and provide the momentum to make the best of life.
Here's one of my favorite jokes:
A man is riding his motorcycle down a mountain road. Suddenly he loses control and goes hurtling off the cliff. As he's sailing through the air, he shouts out: "God! Please make a miracle! Save me!"
Moments later his shirt gets caught on a protruding branch – leaving him dangling thousands of feet above the ground.
There's no way out, so he looks heavenward and shouts: "God! Please save me!"
"Do you trust Me, My beloved son?" calls the voice from heaven.
"Yes, God, I trust you. Just please save me!"
"Okay then," says God. "Let go of the branch and I'll catch you."
The man thinks for a moment, look around, and calls out: "Is anyone else out there?!"
B'miyut s'chok literally means "minimize laughter." Understand the dynamics and use laughter wisely. Laughter is a double-edged sword. When used improperly – e.g. insulting others or causing light-headedness – laughter can be destructive.
We need to define our terms. Why do we laugh?
Laughter is when the unexpected occurs. A toddler puts on her father's big shoes – and we laugh. The president forgets his lines in a speech – and we laugh. When two contrary elements are juxtaposed, the sudden surprise catches us off guard. And the more unexpected, the funnier it is.
Laughter is an integral part of emotional health. You don't have to watch TV to release tension. You just need to know a good joke, or have the comical sense to see absurdity in daily life and... bang! You're smiling and can parlay that positive energy into movement, growth, and power for something meaningful you need to do.
Putting Life Into Perspective
Did you ever see a child fall and get a tiny bruise, then break into a fit of tears? What if you'd look at the child and say: "Oh-oh, I think we have to rush you to the hospital!"
The child laughs, because he recognizes the bruise is a small worry in the big context.
Having a sense of humor is a sign of maturity, because it demonstrates a sense of proportion about what's truly important.
Growing and maturing is a process of learning to see all of life's issues in context. It is human nature to lose focus and get emotionally wrapped up in our day-to-day concerns. We can laugh in everyday life when we recognize the absurdity of a skewed perspective. Someone who breaks a shoelace may think his world is falling apart – until he meets someone without a leg.
Children don't have this sense of proportion. They cry over trivial matters, and bear grudges over little things. An adult who does the same thing is acting childish. "Somebody stepped on my shadow, or somebody insulted me." It is out of proportion.
Try mocking your hang-ups and idiosyncrasies. When it is clear how ridiculous and ludicrous our situation is, the joke is on us.
"Laugh at your problems" does not mean ignore them; that would be irresponsible. Of course you have to deal with the source of your depression. But while you're stuck in it, trying to analyze the reason makes you even more depressed! If you can laugh at yourself for making too much out of something trivial, then you've achieved a necessary distance from your problems. That in turn will give you energy and perspective to deal with the more serious underlying cause.
Each day should be fresh. Don't come with preconceived notions. Laughter helps clear the air. So break out of it and have a laugh. Enjoy life. Don't pity yourself.
Diffuse the Tension
Why do high school girls giggle when the boys walk by? Or why, in an amusement park's "haunted house," do people laugh when the ghost pops out?
Because laughter is a subconscious release of tension. Laughter gets rid of gloom, aggravation, depression, worry – all forms of tension.
So use laughter consciously to break tension in yourself and others. In today's world, everyone is worried about the economy, nuclear missiles, taxes, corporate downsizing. These worries have made us so uptight that many people walk around like time bombs, ready to explode.
Laugh to release steam and uplift yourself. You don't realize how much tension you walk around with every day until you've had a good laugh to release that tension.
When speaking to someone who is tense, smile and tell a joke. Did it ever happen that you are in a terrible argument with a friend, with bad feelings and bad vibes, when all of a sudden you start laughing? Something struck you as ridiculous. All the bad feelings disappeared and you saw how absurd the whole fight was.
So use it consciously. To dispel anger during the middle of an argument, just start laughing. It will put everyone at ease. It is a powerful little gadget, this laughter.
Or if you're nervous about taking a test, laugh about it and say: "So what if I fail. Maybe I'll break the world record for the lowest score!" That sort of joking will relax you and make you more likely to pass the test.
Even just feigning laughter can lift your spirits and relax you. Get yourself a favorite joke that will work at all times and laugh. Remind yourself of that joke and you will start laughing. Laughing when you don't feel like it can itself be funny!
Laugh at Insanity
When we laugh at something, whether it's an idea, a person, or an absurdity – we destroy it. Like any powerful weapon, therefore, laughter must only be directed against an appropriate target.
Of course, it's cruel to laugh at a crazy person. But go right ahead and laugh at crazy ideas. For example, laugh at the idea of "dying for success." Think of the absurdity of so many people wasting their lives chasing after money and material possessions, long after they have much more than they need. Laugh at evil and at the worship of artificial values. This will distance you from such false values, and keep you from getting caught up in it.
Laugh also at jealousy, pettiness, and fighting. Whenever you're surrounded by insanity, laugh it off, and you won't fall under its spell. It's a way of saying: "Oh pardon me, I stepped on the god. I hope I didn't hurt it."
Laugh at the absurd ways people waste time. On a long flight, hundreds of passengers sit with their eyes glued to a tiny screen, watching a boring movie that they wouldn't pay a nickel to see at home. But since they're stuck on the plane, they keep watching. Isn't that a ludicrous way to spend precious hours of life? A person could otherwise be studying, thinking or having a worthwhile conversation.
Look at your "life goals," and realize how little time you spend pursuing them. Isn't it absurd?
Not all laughs have to be happy laughs, but they provide perspective just the same. There is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone for at least a decade, yet tens of thousands of people are starving. Why? Because of politics and greed. It's absurd! The first step in changing craziness is to recognize it. We need to laugh just to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, so we can take action.
When you see these ridiculous things, laugh at them so you won't get caught up in it. Do you understand? When you see insanity, have a good solid laugh and you will be released from it.
Abuses of Laughter
Abusing the tool of laughter is dangerous and destructive. Stay away from:
Laugh "with" people, not "at" them. Ridiculing someone hurts his soul. It's embarrassing and makes him feel worthless. "You are a bozo, a nothing." Ridicule is the most terrible way of hurting another human being. People feel this deeply.
So the next time something "funny" happens, make sure not to direct your laughter at the person, but rather at the funny thing he did.
Similarly, never laugh at another person's worries. Since the person may not see things with your same perspective, your sense of joy at his problems only makes it worse. (Unless you can get the person to laugh about it, too.)
b) Excessive Laughter
Laughing for laughter's sake is just an escape. Jokes alone don't equal happiness, and too much laughter gives an artificial feeling of joy. You can have a great time at a two-hour comedy show – but experience an empty feeling afterward. That's because you got worked up high, but it wasn't real. And the reality always comes back.
Silliness, too, is often a sign of running from the realities of life. Life is serious business, and frivolity destroys meaning. That's why excessive laughter and misplaced levity can lead to immoral behavior.
c) Negative Laughter
Certain types of laughter – like cynicism, sarcasm or a nervous laugh – reveal a more deep-seated emotional problem. Dirty and ethnic jokes are especially problematic. Watch out for these "negative laughters" in yourself and in others, and distance yourself from them.
There's an old saying: "Never laugh at Motherhood or God." That means to say, don't be disrespectful by laughing at serious subjects.
Never poke fun at idealism. If someone is giving up material pursuits in order to serve the needs of others, don't snicker and say, "Nice guys finish last." You've injected a destructive energy into society. This is serious and you've got to keep it serious.
Laughter and God
On a deeper level, laughter teaches us how God interacts with the world.
The official "Jewish day of laughter" is Purim. We get dressed up in funny costumes and act silly – which is surprising since the Purim story is all about an impending annihilation of the Jewish people!
But then the story turns upside down. The Jews went from being the target of annihilation, to being the heroes and victors. Haman is hung and the Jewish people are rescued. It was a miraculous 180-degree shift in fortune. One who thought he was in danger and suddenly discovers he's safe laughs aloud in relief. One who thought he lived alone in a hostile world and suddenly discovers that God is really there laughs aloud in joy.
Human beings see the world from a finite perspective. Since we're tied to the physical world by our bodies, we're forced to live with the illusion of what we perceive.
Laughter is an opportunity to transcend limitations that blind us to seeing God more clearly. Even when things look bad, even if we're suffering, in some way it has got to be all for the best, because there's a beneficent God behind everything, manipulating events for our good.
And that's the story of the Jewish people.
The Talmud says that in the times of the Messiah, "then our mouths will be filled with laughter." Why then and not now? Because today, the world is beset by jealousy, greed, violence, intolerance and fraud. We are suspicious of our neighbors and cynical of our leaders. We are manipulative and seek advantage at the expense of others. Rather than cooperate, we compete.
But in the Messianic era, all that will turn around. As the prophet says: "The lamb will lie down with the lion ... and young children will play at the cobra's nest" (Isaiah 11:6). At that time, when all truth is revealed, "then our mouths will be filled with laughter."
If we were truly clear on the idea that the only real power in the world is God, we wouldn't have nearly as much worry and anxiety. With trust in God, we would be fully relaxed. So we need a good laugh in order to loosen up, forget our anxieties – and break down our walls. Then we can reaffirm our belief that God's world is good, and everything will work out.
Why is "Laughter" a Way to Wisdom?
- Use laughter to keep your troubles in proportion. Realize they're not as bad as they seem. Life is not problems; it's opportunities.
- Laughter dispels gloom, depression, worry, pain and aggravation. Use it as a quick way to snap back into action!
- Use laughter consciously and in a measured amount.
- Aggravation and suffering sap our strength. Laughter brings out cheerful relaxation and gives you new energy.
- Laughter destroys everything in its path – for good and for bad.
- Laughter taps us into the deeper reality of God's interaction with the world.