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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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

(Photo: http://www.dreamstime.com)

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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