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You Gotta Laugh

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“I know of no other manner of dealing with great tasks than as play; this … is an essential prerequisite.Friedrich Nietzsche

On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial stock index was the lowest in fifteen years. The banking industry continues to falter, and AIG needs another $30 billion. Dare I mention that a U.S.-backed war continues six years and counting in Iraq? Well, you gotta laugh.


No, really, you have to laugh. From the practices of Zen Buddhism, Hopi, and Zuni ritual clowning, and on to the modern philosophical writings, around the world we are taught to regard laughter and comedy as critical disciplines. When the going gets tough, find a way to crack yourself up.


In the American Southwest, the clown historically played a pivotal role in addressing tragedy. At Pueblo funerals, scantily dressed clowns in rags from the Kachina Zuni tradition would pretend to seduce the widow, make fun of the corpse, and to copulate with one another with constructed and exaggerated genitalia. This practice disgusted early anthropologists, yet when interviewed, Zuni clowns explained the highly structured and sacred nature of their work. By bringing farce to such seriousness, they restored balance and health to their community. Through their antics, life is merged with death, the mundane with the sacred, and levity with misery. The clowns held what appeared to be irreconcilable opposites and in the chaos they created, they awarded the group deeper order and peace. As Kierkegaard once said, “It is certainly unjust to the comical to regard it as the enemy of the religious.”


We need to laugh, especially when we are miserable. Laughter allows us to see our situation with greater objectivity. It cracks open fixed beliefs as comedy is based on displaying the ludicrous in what we might believe to be beyond reproach. Example, yesterday David Letterman’s Top Ten Things Overhead in New York During Today’s Snowstorm included, “#4, Al Gore can suck it!” and “#2, No, officer, I offered her $50 to blow on my hands.” If we laugh, we must then confront the inner conflict of also regarding global warming or prostitution as deathly serious topics. By allowing ourselves to see the humor, we have to detach a bit and notice where we may be too fixated in our beliefs. Silliness breeds flexibility and creativity.


Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is accompanied with laughter Conrad Hyers explains in The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit. Their koans, or paradoxical statements, like, “hold tightly with an open hand,” are meant to frustrate, confuse, to get us to back up. I’m suspicious that the whacky phrases given to initiates to meditate upon might all be jokes in disguise. Take this koan from the twelfth-century Zen koan Book of Equanimity:

Venerable Gon’yo asked Joshu, “How is it when a person does not have a single thing?”


Joshu said, “Throw it away.”


Gon’yo said, “I say I don’t have a single thing. What could I ever throw away?” 


Joshu said, “If so, carry it around with you.”


Feels like there’s a punch line in here somewhere …


I had to research ritual clowning before my husband’s daily routine got any respect. As an estate planning and business lawyer, my spouse spends his day talking about death and taxes. Yet, somehow he is a really happy, and funny, guy. As one friend shared, “Only your husband could get me laughing about dying and picking guardians for our kids.” I think I’m figuring out one of his secrets of sanity. Each morning from my bed, I hear coffee maker gurgles and giggles in the kitchen as Bruce eats breakfast while reviewing the previous late night TV monologues from his laptop. He suggests the New York Times Web site, LaughLines if you are interested. I find something innately right about this treasure trove living on the same Web site that covers the news that’s been making us cry this week.


Another morning humor ritual is emigrating from India. I have included a short video clip below on Dr. Madan Kataria who in the past ten years has formed over 3,000 laughter clubs across his country. Kataria and his fellow members practice “laughter yoga” each day to improve their health and well-being. 


So, we’ve got to laugh. I leave you with a favorite mental image from a wise and funny friend David who was a clown in the Ringling Brothers circus to pay his way through college. After emergency open-heart surgery in his early forties, he found himself too quickly pulled out of bed to walk the halls by a bossy nurse. Chest aching, shaky, and miserable, I will paraphrase how he explained his predicament, “There I was, exposing backside in the flimsy hospital gown, pushing an IV stand, and looking like hell. Fancy education and consulting practice were distant memories as I felt and probably looked like a ninety-year-old instead of forty-two. Life sucked at that moment. Yet, I had to hum the theme song to Bonanza, you know the one where they come riding into town … really, what else could I do?”  

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