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April 15, 2002

Laughter, a divine gift and a distinguishing mark

by Marie Luttrell

The other night I watched a television show that fascinated me. It was about a street magician who travelled with a deck of cards, coins, and bits of string, and stopped people anywhere simply to make them laugh by his tricks.

Of course the medium of television leaves one quite skeptical, thinking the magic may simply be an illusion brought about by the cameras, but what interested me was watching the people’s reaction. They were amazed and responded with uncontrollable, doubled-over laughter.

Laughter is a physical reaction that is quite remarkably and universally human. Scientists and psychologists have studied it for years, trying to determine the exact nature of laughter, whether it is culturally determined, or what it is that triggers our laughing mechanism.

It has been shown to improve everything from office morale to personal health. For years, Readers’ Digest has run a section called “Laughter, the Best Medicine.” (I’m sure that more than one of us has tried to procure that $50 reward for sending in a joke.)

I believe the ability to laugh is one of the divine fires inside of all of us. It blesses all: rich, poor, young, old, fat, thin, bald, fair, ruddy, big feet or no feet. There can be simply nothing finer than laughing.

Our laughter is a distinguishing mark of who we are, and it multiplies exponentially when shared with other people. After cooing, the first attempt that parents make to draw some speech from their babies is to tickle them into a laugh. We have acute enough hearing to be able to pick out our loved one’s laughter in the room next door.

Even when our conscious mind muddies with disability, there is no mistaking the laughter that still echoes from the person inside. (The last time I saw my grandmother, as she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, her speech didn’t always make sense to me, but her laughter was the way she was able to remember me and embrace me.)

Perhaps the reason that we cannot understand laughter, no matter how much we study it, is that it is divine in origin and carries many meanings.

In a recent article on working with the people of Kiribati, an island country in the mid-Pacific, Joyce de Gooijer, a Volunteer International Christian Service worker, said this: “Laughter was something to get used to. It is generally how all emotions are expressed there. Laughter could express being nervous, angry, happy, supportive, or funny. I couldn’t always tell which it was, though I got to know one person well enough to know if his laughter was because something was funny or he was trying to find a way to tell me that I was out to lunch!”

As far back as Abraham and Sarah, we see laughter in our human story. When God sends messengers to tell them they are to have a son, their reaction is laughter.

“Abraham prostrated himself and laughed as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old, or can Sarah give birth at 90?’”

Later: “So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure? But the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I really bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too marvellous for the Lord to do?” Gen. 17 and 18.

“Sarah then said, ‘God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me. Who would have told Abraham,’ she added, ‘that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have borne him a son in his old age” Gen. 21:6, 7.

Laughter, awe, faith, love, sexual pleasure, all divinely instilled in us, intertwine in this marvellous story. In bringing the great gift of Isaac (“Yishaq,” the Hebrew form of the name, means “laugh”), God’s work in the lives of Abraham and Sarah is rich and real. As our own “yishaq” grows, my husband and I as the older parents are often struck with the same richness and realize the gift that this child has been in our lives.

As with all divine fires, though, we run the risk of causing great harm with laughter. It escapes so quickly, so easily. Sometimes we laugh at, not with. We laugh at jokes meant to undermine the dignity of other people. We laugh in cruelty, in lack of understanding or consideration. It just happens so fast.

All we need to do to understand the potential for harm is to think back to our own childhoods. One of our greatest fears was to be laughed at by other children. As adults it comes not only in being the butt of a joke, but also, in being left out of the joke.

Laughter, as fire, can separate and burn as easily as it unites and warms. I suspect all of us to a person have had regrets over mis-spilled laughter.

For a long time, I wondered why the evangelists omitted any reference to Christ’s laughter. My guess now is that they had a very good reason. It was probably the “you had to be there” effect, like a joke that has to be explained. Words get in the way.

Jesus laughed, I have no doubt. He still laughs with us and through us, and through those around us, a-tears-running-down-the-cheeks belly-laugh filled with joy, wonder, and awe. Just listen for Him the next time you laugh. His laugh is unmistakably rich and real.

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