What makes us laugh
March 18, 2013
In town on a very warm and very bright Saturday:
My family is parked at a picnic table outside the local ice cream shop, slurping down all manner of frozen treats. The shop is busy. People mill about, eager to partake in a ritual designed much more for spring than winter.
Some are more eager than others. Our eyes settle upon one man in particular who has summoned the courage to order three dips of chocolate ice cream on his cone. He pays and does his best to balance his desert until he can get to the table near us. Halfway there, though, his hand goes left while the ice cream goes right. The entire thing, cone and all, takes a ride down the front of his white shirt.
I snicker, which turns into a chortle, which turns into the sort of involuntary shaking that comes when you can’t help but laugh but don’t want to be seen laughing. My kids laugh, too.
The same very warm and very bright Saturday, but later:
On our way into the grocery store, we’re met by a woman carrying no less than five shopping bags making her way toward the parking lot. She’s trying but not quite able to see where everything is—her car, the traffic, a neighbor who says hello. She doesn’t see the rock in front of her, though. The one she trips over. She tumbles, spewing everything from hamburger to washing detergent.
My kids snicker, which turns into a chortle, which turns into the same sort of involuntary shaking they saw their father succumb to earlier at the ice cream shop.
I, however, don’t laugh. And I tell them they shouldn’t, either. Then I explain the difference between someone having an accident that could hurt them and someone having an accident that could just embarrass them. They stare at me. It’s tough having to explain the subtleties of humor to your children.
I’ve pondered about my children’s laughter since. Not that there is so little of it or even so much, if there is such a thing. No, what I’ve been thinking about is what they laugh at. What they think is funny.
Such a thing seems important to me. I think what makes us laugh says a lot about the sort of people we are.
If that’s true, then I would suppose my children are typical. What makes them laugh? Any sound emanating from any orifice on the human body. Boogers? Funny. Sneezes? Funny. Sneezes that produce boogers? Comedic gold.
But the scene at the grocery store bothered me. Partly because I was afraid I’d put the notion into their heads that such a thing was laughable, but partly because I’ve always been aware of the thin line between what should be funny and what shouldn’t.
The Bible never mentions Christ laughing. It mentions Him crying, of course, but never giggling. And though it may seem strange to say that God can giggle, I’m willing to bet that He can and does. Often. I’m sure Jesus had a great sense of humor. I’m sure He laughed. I think it was a pretty big oversight not to include that in the gospels. Knowing what Jesus found funny would come in handy to parents.
The question of whether we should find cause to laugh in this life is one that I think never needs asking. As dark and dreary and frightening as the world can be at times, there is an equal measure of light and beauty and anticipation. I like to think that no matter what our circumstances or worries may be, there is always plenty to be joyful about if we go looking for it.
A day without laughter is a day lost. It means that in the ongoing struggle between the hope we all seek and the despair the world seems intent upon handing us, the world has won.
That’s what I want my children to know.
But I want them to know this as well—much of the humor they’re privy to is merely hate wrapped in a punch line. It drips meanness. It lifts our spirits but tarnishes our souls. It isn’t nectar, it’s sweet poison.
I’m going to make it a point from now on to watch what I laugh at. To pay attention. To be a better dad.
Because I have a sneaky feeling that a lot of what makes me laugh would make God cry.
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