Fred K. trains emergency medical technicians, and he's certainly the kind of person we'd like to meet in an ambulance. We call him a "jollytologist." He's got a great sense of humor and laughs easily and heartily. He's got a huge heart, and even strangers are drawn to him.
We couldn't help noticing this about Fred when he visited us several years ago along with Mary Ann's brother and sister-in-law and two of her sisters. This group sprinkled good cheer all over New York as they toured the city in what seemed to be a state of constant delight. They were great guests and good teachers of the spiritual practice of laughing.
The ability to put a positive face forward, we decided, is a major asset for those who come in contact with people during an emergency. A smile or a chuckle may be just what someone in dire straits needs. Laughter takes the edge off our troubles. It offers a distraction and sometimes even a relief from pain and grief. We could all use a personal jollytologist like Fred to help us smile when things go wrong.
Laughter is also very good medicine. Norman Cousins, longtime editor of Saturday Review, learned this during a battle with a debilitating illness. He discovered that his condition improved when he enjoyed himself and watched funny movies. Laughing, he wrote, is like inner jogging. It helps us heal by activating the immune system. Many sick people have taken his advice and incorporated humor into their recovery regimen by watching comedies or reading collections of jokes.
"A good laugh is sunshine in a house," William Thackeray once noted. Try to set aside time each day to tickle your funny bone. Doing so is good for your mind, body, and soul.
Mary Ann loves bloopers. Perhaps because we work so much with words, she just cracks up when she hears someone stumbling over them. She's not laughing at the person but laughing along with anyone who thinks we've got this language completely under control.
Frederic is a slapstick fan. Give him a raucous comedy where people collide into each other and take pratfalls, and he'll slap his thighs red in recognition of similar things that have happened to him. All of us have moments of physical awkwardness; to feel embarrassed about them is truly foolish.
One of the most persistent criticisms of religious and spiritual people is that we take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes before speaking in public, we'll make faces at ourselves in the mirror — monster faces, silly faces. This relaxes us and keeps us from approaching our subject and our audience from too somber a place.
We have a collection of clowns that have been with us for close to 40 years now. They remind us to be playful as they reflect our foibles and follies back to us. We especially love the sculpture of a clown on a tightrope desperately trying to keep his balance. Another favorite is a reproduction of a painting by Georges Rouault of Christ as a clown.
"Laughter," theologian Karl Barth reminded us, "is the closest thing to the grace of God." Keep that in mind the next time you chuckle, hear a blooper, take a pratfall, or plan a party. In closing, we offer this quote from Conrad Hyers as a beautiful summary of this spiritual practice. "The first and last word belong to God and therefore not to death but life, not to sorrow but joy, not to weeping but laughter. For surely it is God who has the last laugh."