In her idea-spurring book, Make a List, Marilyn McEntyre describes list-making as a spiritual exercise. She describes how the making of lists can shape, form, and reveal us – while she also shares a number of her own as examples and food for thought. One of them, “What marriage teaches us,” includes these ideas:
- There’s more than one way.
- What “goes without saying” doesn’t.
- “Apologize” is an active verb.
- You learn what works by forgiving what doesn’t.
- The subtext may be more important than the plot.
- If you’re not still being surprised, you’ve fallen asleep.
- The little things are the big things in disguise.
- Love is bigger than understanding.
- Laughter heals.
Laughter does heal – at least, the kind that is healthy and good for the soul. There is, of course, some laughter this is malicious and directed at others; this isn’t healing. But laughter at the absurdities, the difficulties, and the oddities of life – especially shared with others – this can be life-giving.
Married couples laughing at each other’s foibles is better than griping at them. Parents cackling at their toddlers’ miniature-sized defiances is healthier than allowing such annoyances to build up. Chuckling at your friend’s quirks helps draw you closer, rather than farther apart. And smiling at your own eccentricities keeps you sane.
Laughter is truly a gift. A human gift. As the 19th century writer William Hazlitt put it: “Man is the only animal that laughs, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”
Humor helps us see. It helps us notice the absurdity of life and the possibility. It recognizes the fallibility of everyone we encounter – including ourselves. Laughter allows us to recognize that things are not as we want them to be, or as they should be – while doing so without complete despair. We laugh at our toddlers’ self-importance, precisely because we know it’s something that is a part of growing up and something they will need to grow through. We snicker at others’ pretensions for we see in them their desire to assert themselves, to find meaning – the very same things we are seeking. We laugh because we all want to have worth – but we so often go about it the wrong way.
And just as the presence of laughter is insightful, so is its absence. Where laughter is not present, there is a certain emptiness, a hopelessness. Take away laughter and you take away the ability to see through the brokenness to something better, something more hopeful.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis for his plot against Hitler, he wrote a letter to his parents that included these lines: “The longing for joy in this somber building is great. One never hears any laughter. Given what they witness, even the guards seem unable to laugh.”
For both prisoner and guard, the lack of laughter was a clear sign: there is no hope in this place. The inability to laugh was a recognition by men on either side of the bars that they were both uniquely imprisoned in that hopeless place. And it’s not as if they simply needed some stilted jokes or sinister humor, it’s that the lack of laughter was a symptom of something deeper – that this prison, this war, this whole Nazi system was sub-human. The absence of laughter was a sign that the place and all the space around them had been squeezed of hope.
Without hope, we falter. Without laughter, we get our first glimpse that hope is fading.
We know that at the news of Jesus’ coming, and at his birth, Mary pondered. And through that pondering, she caught a glimpse of the bigger purpose God had in mind. She caught a ray of hope – for her people, and eventually, for the people of the world. And I like to think that she smiled – maybe even laughed – at the hope of it all.