A woman was in the hospital, near death. The family called their pastor to be with her. As the pastor stood next to the bed, the woman’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Gasping for breath, she motioned for the pastor to come close as if she needed to urgently tell him something. He couldn’t understand what she was saying so he handed her a piece of paper and pen. She used her last bit of energy to scribble something down and handed it to the pastor, and then she breathed her last. The pastor placed the paper in his pocket and decided to read it later. He forgot about it until it came time for the funeral. As he was giving the eulogy, he remembered the note and realized that he was wearing the same pants. He decided to spontaneously add it to his eulogy. He said to the congregation, “Before Jane died, she handed me a note. I haven’t read it yet but knowing Jane I’m sure it has a word of inspiration for all of us. He opened the note and read it out loud, “Step away from the bed. You’re standing on my oxygen tube.” You could say he put his foot in it twice.
Do you think that death is a laughing matter? Do you ever laugh at funerals, either because people share humorous, heartwarming stories or for no apparent reason? It’s a fairly common phenomenon, and probably some sort of coping mechanism, for people to laugh at times of tragedy. Robert Fulghum even says that “laughter is the cure for grief.” Why does humor heal? What is the power of fun? One of the most famous eulogies was delivered by John Cleese at his fellow Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman’s funeral. Chapman co-authored the Parrot Sketch where the guy takes his parrot back to the pet shop and tries to convince the shop keeper that the parrot is in fact dead. Cleese began his eulogy by saying, “Graham Chapman is no more. He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky.” The Cleese eulogy was followed by the remaining Monty Python members doing a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
In the eulogy Cleese spoke about the ability of Chapman to shock people. Then he ended the eulogy by saying something interesting about the value of shock. “The thing about shock is not that it upsets some people. It gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realize in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives are not actually very important.”
One of the reasons that fun and laughter are powerful spiritual tools is because they play with your assumptions and society’s rules. Laughter and fun give you ways to tear apart the straight jacket of personal and social conformity. Life is not always predictable, our rules and conclusions are not always as clever as we imagine, and it’s always possible to take alternate perspectives. Through the power of laughter, you open up a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
How do you know when it’s appropriate to laugh at tragedy, and when it’s not? Personally, I take my cues from the people involved. I have fond memories of visiting a woman who was in her last days. You will be glad to know that I didn’t tread on her oxygen tube. She was a flirt of a woman to the end. She asked me if I would make a phone call for her. I asked her the number. She said it was in her phone. I asked her where her phone was. She pointed to her chest. I didn’t know what she meant until I saw her phone hanging by a cord that went around her neck and rested under her nightie. She just smirked and kept pointing to her chest. She wasn’t going to help me get the phone. She forced me to dig in and pull out her phone, get the number and then put the phone back. We both laughed and laughed. It took all the tension out of a difficult situation. People involved in traumatic situations will usually give the cues as to what’s appropriate.
The transforming power of fun is that you can try out a different reality in your mind, see how it feels, get comfortable with it, rehearse it, and live it into existence. You release the tension out of a situation and inadvertently find new solutions that you hadn’t even thought about. Some people have a rare gift of introducing fun into tense situations, but we all have the ability to do it if we are mindful.
Spirituality and Fun
Fun is important to all species. Animals in the wild engage in ferocious mock battles. Magpies wrestle, foxes jump on trampolines and elk frolic in puddles. Bears charge rivers, monkeys somersault down hills, and elephants doodle with sticks in the earth. Fun even crosses species lines. Polar bears have been seen horsing around with dogs, and monkeys playing with tigers. Fun seems to be a universal instinct.
A study of Alaskan grizzlies showed that the ones that played the most were the ones most likely to survive. Another study showed that if you take play away from lab rats they develop behavioral problems and become bad lovers. And we can’t have that, can we?
Fun is important, and there are loads of examples of fun and laughter in spiritual traditions. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods.” In the context of what happened in Japan last year, this is particularly meaningful.
In the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, laughing is emphasized. There is a quote usually attributed to the Buddha that says, “When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” It’s a great thought although not quite accurate. It likely comes from a Tibetan text that says,
Since everything is but an illusion,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
One might as well burst out laughing!
(From chapter 1 of The Great Perfection’s Self-Liberation in the Nature of Mind, by Longchenpa (1308-1364)
From the Muslim tradition, a beautiful image comes from the Sufi poet Hafiz who said, “Me and God are two giants in a tiny boat, bumping into each other, and laughing.” Imagination and fun are gateways to wonder and possibility.
Religion too often directs people to a God that is outside of yourself. Looking for God outside of yourself is like wandering around looking for your sunglasses when they are on top of your head all along. Spirituality is best practiced with humility and playfulness, like kids in a sandbox exploring the boundaries of imagination and possibility.
Fun and Perspective
There is yet another positive effect from laughing, and that is that we have the ability to laugh in the face of the unthinkable and create a little distance from the trauma in order to gain new perspective.
There is so much death and suffering in the world. They are still trying to rebuild parts of Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand. Since Hurricane Katrina, and the gulf oil spill, Mardi Gras has become an occasion synonymous with rising from the ashes of disaster. Is it appropriate to have fun at times of crisis? Maybe it’s one of the most powerful things we can do. It’s like raising a fist to despair as if to say, “You can’t have me. I won’t give in.”
Laughter is not always appropriate, but at times it is a coping mechanism as if to say, “Alright I’ve hit rock bottom here. The only way is up, and that’s where I’m heading now.” Things seem so bad right now that it’s almost comical, but I can beat this and rise from the ashes. I will get the last laugh by climbing on top of the very rocks that have shattered around me and use them to give me a leg up.
Do you remember Guido in the movie, Life is Beautiful? The story is set in the time of the holocaust, and Guido, his wife and 5 year-old son are being held in a concentration camp- Guido and his son in one camp, and his wife next door in the women’s camp. Guido breaks the oppressive spirit of the camp with humor. In one scene Guido commandeers the PA system in the camp and sends a message to his wife, who doesn’t know if he is dead or alive. Guido says he wants to make love to his wife in Italian so the solders can’t understand him. In another scene Guido volunteers to be the translator for the German soldier who is barking orders about different rules that the prisoners must follow, or be killed. Guido translates it completely differently. What he says is a message in Italian to his son. He tells his son that this is all a game, and if you follow the rules of the game, you can win. If you win the game you get a beautiful big tank. The son’s eyes grow wide as he listens to his father, while the soldier barks out order about death. In the midst of unthinkable sadness, Guido gives his family hope.
Thank goodness for laughter and for those who are able to create fun in tense situations. Mardi Gras is the perfect time to consider your own relationship with fun. Are you burdened by unsolvable problems? Are you overwhelmed by the sadness and suffering in the world? Laugh, not AT the suffering and not in a callous way, but in such a way that you remind yourself that a new reality is always possible. If you can’t find anything funny, conduct a preemptive strike on fun. Laugh on suspicion of something ordinary and every day. Laugh at your own routines. Laugh at your over active imagination. Laugh at the absurdity of chaos. Laugh at the frailty of life. Then surrender to new perspectives that only open up because you let the air out of your nervous energy. Fun is a pathway to spirit, rerouted surprise, laughter’s short cut. The spirit of fun in me greets the spirit of fun in you. LOL!