Why Laughter Matters

It was Red Skelton’s fault. From ‘30s vaudeville then radio, movies, and on to television, Skelton’s gentle humour always induced howls of laughter. In 1950, broadcast engineer Charles Rolland Douglass taped Skelton audiences. He then played snippets during a Hank McCune TV show. It worked. Folks at home were prompted to laugh along with the supposed studio audience. When it was reported that people found shows with laugh tracks funnier than those without, the “Laugh Box” was soon employed by all comedies. Without knowing it, generations of people perched before radios and televisions were laughing along with Skelton audiences. We laughed. And that’s no laughing matter because laughter matters.

Public speakers know. Regardless of the weightiness of the address, every good speech begins with levity. An audience becomes connected with each other and the speaker and so more willing to consider messages that come through the simple act of a shared laugh. Teachers know. Any educator who fails to see the link between entertainment and teaching knows nothing of either. Humour makes even the most mundane material more accessible and so learning, rather than just teaching becomes more likely. Preachers know. Witness the erasing of the wafer thin line between laughter and tears at every funeral when funny stories are told about the deceased. Permission to laugh offers permission to grieve.

All laughter is not good. Too many YouTube videos and cheap Comedy Channel programs rest upon enjoying the misfortunes of others. Leave it to the Germans to have named that sad brand of humour. They called it schadenfrude. A Leiden University study confirmed that we are embarrassed when laughing at others tripping, failing, or being humiliated. While we know it’s wrong, though, we just can’t help ourselves. The study also showed that narcissists, and folks with low self-esteem or mean streaks find schadenfrude particularly pleasurable. Picture Hitler laughing.

The Navajo people understand laughter’s mystical value. Their rich and complex culture portends that when a baby is born it is of two worlds – the spiritual and the earth. Adults await the child’s first chuckle. The first belly laugh, that bursting of pleasure that all parents treasure, signals that the child has completed the birth process and fully joined the family and community. The first laugh brings the A’wee Chi’deedloh or Baby Laughed ceremony. People gather and pass by the baby with plates brimming with food and exchange gifts of salt. The symbols of health and rejuvenation not only welcome the child fully to earth but also imbue the notion that a good life is one of generosity. Whoever induces the first laugh pays for the party so it is not uncommon for Navajo people to ask nervously when presented with a newborn, “Has this child laughed?”

Human beings are not alone in laughter. Chimpanzees, gorillas, apes, and rats also laugh. Chimps love magic tricks and literally roll with laughter when surprised. Rats laugh when tickled and will move toward a hand or feather to enjoy it again. Koko the sign language expert gorilla surrenders to schadenfrude as she laughs when her handlers perform pratfalls. Humans are unique, though, in spending so much time and money, the equivalent of animals surrendering food, just to laugh.

Laughter Matters

(Photo: http://www.sciencenews.org)

So wait for it. Wait for it at the coffee shop or office. No matter how heavy the baggage lugged along, wait for it at family gatherings. The bursts of laughter are the shattering of barriers and linking of hearts. If only for that moment we become one. For that moment, we make gentle the harshness of the world and remember that we are here not to soil our souls with ambition or the gathering of stuff but simply to be happy; to be happy simply.

A young John Lennon once angered a teacher for when his class was asked to compose something on what they wanted to be in life he wrote, “Be happy.” The teacher said, “You did not understand the assignment.” Lennon replied, “You don’t understand life.” Red Skelton would have laughed.

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New Year’s and the Redemptive Power of the Do-Over

Kids love do-overs. Golfers love mulligans. What’s not to love about getting another go at something missed or muffed? There are few among us who have not wished for a do-over after a botched job interview, thoughtless remark, or mistakenly sent ‘reply to all.’ Perhaps that’s the magic of New Year’s Eve. It reflects our faith in the do-over and the power of redemption.

New Year’s and the Redemptive Power of the Do-Over

(Photo: eilanhotel.com)

The Pagans understood. They proposed explanations for the unexplainable in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Renewal and redemption, for instance, informed the Pagan observance of the spring equinox. Winter had crippled the sun but April brought resurrection with days longer than nights. Celebrations involved Eostre, a northern goddess, who offered rabbits and eggs as symbols of fertility and rebirth.

The Catholic Church understands. The ritual of confession is based on our being weak and inclined to evil and thus apt to sin. However, all is forgiven if an adherent is truly contrite, fesses up, and then carries out the prescribed penance. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers the washing of sin, a road back to God’s grace, and a new start on a more virtuous life.

Existentialists understand too. They reject the beliefs of pagans and most religions in their insistence that people control themselves. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and more, essentially said forget God or gods having a grand plan or ability to forgive or influence our lives. Forget both nature and nurture for neither determines who or what we are. Everything, they said, is up to us. Existentialism’s power and freedom offered a double-edged sword for our ability to create our own meaning, being, and opportunities comes with a responsibility to do so. It insists that no one but us is to blame – neither parents nor God – for our confusion or shortcomings.

So while Pagans, Catholics, and Existentialists disagree about a host of matters, they link arms on the twin powers of reflection and redemption. They agree with Shakespeare who gave these words to Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” If they are all right, then New Year’s Eve offers a unique and powerful gift.

My band will be playing on New Year’s Eve and at midnight we’ll pause for the countdown and kisses. I will silently repeat the resolution that I will have decided upon. I’ll pledge to correct not a silly behaviour but a character flaw. I have plenty from which to choose. Perhaps I’ll resolve to listen more and talk less or buy less and give more. I might vow to see neighbours more and to see more as neighbours. The simpler my resolution, the more profound will be its impact, difficult its execution, and, therefore, essential to my ever evolving being and life’s nuanced meaning.

I will then plunge into 2016, confident in the power of restoration and redemption. I’ll try to do better by being better because on January 1, like you, I’ll get a new chance at new. Isn’t that what a do-over is all about?

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Your Circle of Loyalty and Responsibility

We are the enlightenment’s willing slaves. It began when a number of 17th century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently and with variations on a theme argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion was perfectly fine until the trenches of the First World War, extermination camps of the Second, and then, more recently, climate change’s dreadful reality suggested that perhaps positive progress is not so inevitable after all. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line. Perhaps Aboriginal philosophy, the spiritualism that existed long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and his cohorts insisted they were wrong, were on to a more fundamental and enduring truth. Maybe it’s all about circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Native North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in Native circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

It's All About Circles

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The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Americans and Canadians are now embroiled in political decision-making. The air is smudged with attacks and promises and the media is focused on tiny, distracting issues while portraying the elections as horse races. The options being presented by the various candidates and parties are really asking voters to consider circles of loyalty and responsibility.

Some are saying we should be loyal only to our immediate families and ourselves. Everyone of a different class, race, region, or nationality be damned. Others are arguing that we should feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country with those outside its borders on their own. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kicked down the ladder. Still others go further. They argue that we are human beings who share the planet and so should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all, including Earth itself.

When boiled to its essence, the American and Canadian elections are proving that the enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that aboriginal spirituality is right because it is really all about circles. It is about the size, the volume if you will, of our personal circles. So where do you draw your circle of loyalty and responsibility?

Consider that question when you hear a candidate speak of building a fence or helping to save Syrian refugees, supporting those who deny gay or women’s rights or those trying to extend them, propose we all pay a little so we can all be healthier or pay for only ourselves. Think of those using dog whistle code words such as “True Americans” or “Old Stock Canadians.” Where is their circle? Where is yours?

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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