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Keeping this shaky boat afloat

Pastoral Messages | November 7, 2019

I was sitting in the back of a bus with some friends recently as the driver wound his way through some narrow streets in downtown Tel Aviv. One of these friends told a story with a closing line that caused others of us to erupt with laughter. It’s hard to double over in a bus seat, but this was the kind of side-splitting laughter that caused the rest of the passengers to turn around just to see what was happening to us. They started laughing themselves, even though they hadn’t heard the story or the punch line. They simply laughed because we were laughing, which made those of us in the back laugh all the more. For good reason, we describe laughter as contagious.

For all of us, laughter is medicine for the soul. I’m no expert at managing stress, though I live with a fair amount of it. But what I’ve discovered over time is that spontaneous, unexpected laughter is a great release from the pressures of life. It may not heal or relieve all things. It certainly doesn’t solve many problems. But it alters perspective, introduces humility, and cultivates relationship. I’m not thinking of the polite chuckle that accompanies awkward conversation, or the cynical laugh that may be at someone else’s expense. I’m just talking about the kind of deep laughter that triggers those feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins.

Actor Alan Alda encouraged some college students one time to laugh for their own well-being. “There are people who think that the only thing that separates humans from the rest of the animals is their ability to laugh,” said Alda. “I’m not so sure anything separates us from the rest of the animals except perhaps our extreme egotism that leads us to think that they’re animals and we’re not. But I do notice that when people are laughing, they’re generally not killing one another. So, keep laughing yourself and if you can get other people to join you in your laughter, you may help keep this shaky boat afloat.”

The shaky boat he was speaking of is our fragile and fragmented society. Evolutionary psychologists believe that laughter was an early bond that helped bring human groups together. If this theory is true, it would help explain why we’re 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people than when we’re alone.

Laughter has not fared well in Christian history. Part of the reason may be that the New Testament has scant evidence of laughter except for the scornful variety with which some people targeted Jesus. I wonder more, though, if Christianity isn’t made up of a lot of serious people who believe their seriousness is part of their righteousness. In other words, we tell ourselves not to get too frivolous with matters of the soul.

If that thinking is in play, we should challenge it by laughing more. After all, we have a shaky boat that needs our help in staying afloat.

-Peter W. Marty

3 Comments on “Keeping this shaky boat afloat”

  • Pat Fennnelly

    December 1, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for mentioning this page at services this weekend. As one other person commented each offers a lot to think about. I could reply “thank you” to many but want the authors to know my comment is truly sincere. It takes a lot of courage to post your thoughts and feelings.

  • Jeanne Ann Elkin

    November 7, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    I recently lost my husband and it dawned on me last week that what I miss so much is our laughter! We laughed at everything and it really takes two or more to laugh at something.

  • Sheila Mesick

    November 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    Laughter is good medicine. Alan Alda’s words regarding laughter is wisdom that is very much needed. Sometimes I have to step back from the good intentions of wanting to keep current in the news by watching and listening public radio news reports, MSNBC, or BBC World.That is when I insert a child’s movie such as Pets 2 or watch once again Grumpy Old Men. Laughter unlocks that tense bolted door inside, allowing us to breath. Thank you Peter for reminding us it is ok to laugh, so essential.

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