Standing in front of my father’s open casket, with my brother’s arm around my shoulder, I made my brother laugh. I said of my father, a life-long, die-hard Democrat, “You know, he kind of looks like Richard Nixon.”
My brother retorted, “He must be dead or he would have reached out and smacked you for saying that.”
We laughed together through our tears.
To many this must seem irreverent, and perhaps it is. For us, though, it was a momentary respite from a long week of waiting for my father’s body to be returned to the United States from Mexico where he had died suddenly of a heart attack. Our laughter in that moment carved a path through our grief.
My father would have approved of this irreverence. In fact, my family has always laughed at what others deemed inappropriate moments, including, or perhaps especially, during family funerals. My most vivid and cherished childhood memories center on the laughter of our family and family friends. I eagerly anticipated every visit to my grandparents’ homes or visits from friends in our home because it would mean the rooms would be full of laughter. Even if I wasn’t in the same room, I knew all was right with the world, if just for the moment, if I could hear the grownups laughing.
Now in what would be called my “mid-life” it is still the laughter of my friends and family that sustains me. It’s just about the only thing my teenage son and I can do together right now that doesn’t involve what he considers nagging on my part and what I consider rudeness or disobedience on his. The key feature of all of my groups of friends is our ability to laugh together over something wicked, catty, or self-deprecating. I live for the times I can have a beer with a friend and we can laugh until we both snort or threaten to spew beer across a table.
I believe in the power of laughter. It unites people as well as breaks down the barriers between us. Laughter is a mental palate cleanser. A genuine laugh consumes the body, releases anger, anxiety, and suffering. Like a finger gently nudging the needle on a broken record, it forces our thinking out of its ruts and grooves, forces us to skip ahead to a new thought. Laughing is not only the best medicine, it may be our only defense against the assault of everyday living. As Mel Brooks once said, “Laughter is a protest scream against death.”
My belief in laughter extends to me also. Years ago I realized that taking myself less seriously and laughing openly at my own foibles and faux pas opens me to more genuine relationships with my family, my friends, and my colleagues. My college students used to come to freshman composition each semester with such fear. The moment I began to make them laugh is the moment I began teaching. The same holds true now with the people I work for and with. When I defuse their anxieties and make that crucial connection with them, they can see that the world does not have to be such a scary place. A laugh is the moment when we begin to open up to each other.
If laughter is the path we carve to seeing each other more clearly, that sustains a quality life, then surely laughter is the sound of peace.