I’m automatically suspicious of anyone who seems to possess either an extremely limited sense of humor or, even more so, none at all. Life without a sense of humor to me would be very dark and depressing, and I honestly feel that along with the many gifts God has blessed us all with to navigate the adventure of life as we know it, humor and the ability to laugh is truly one of the greatest. I can honestly say that of the many gifts God has blessed me with – love, a sense of wonder, creativity, the ability to learn and grow in life, spiritual awareness, sexuality and peace about it, and numerous other things – laughter is by far one of my favorites. Three things I think no one should be without are all “L” words: Living Life to the fullest, Love and Laughter.
It is said that it takes many more muscles – I have heard at least 62, 87 or more – to frown, and significantly fewer muscles – I have heard as high as 26 and as low as 13 – to smile. I’m not certain of the exact numbers involved, but it is known that it takes considerably less effort to smile or laugh than to scowl, frown or maintain a look of frustration and anger. However one chooses to interpret that, it is obvious that to express negative emotions requires tension where as the expression of positive emotions involves relaxation and a “letting go” of stress and tension. There have even been suggestions that “humor also increases activity of cells that make infection-fighting antibodies and a body chemical that helps mop up virally infected cells and some cancer cells,” as I read in an article.
I personally think there is something to this. I have witnessed the healing effects of laughter, and of humor. I have been among people who were going through experiences in life which, no doubt, were devastating on a personal level. One person was crying, hurt, angry and somewhere in the conversation, the person or persons consoling them would, with respect for whatever it was they were dealing with, make the person suffering laugh about something – maybe an old inside joke, or a memory that inspired laughter. What at first was a frown became a smile, then a giggle as tears would gradually die and become laughter. It is something I have always found amazing. Even during arguments, people will strike out and hit the funny bone and then all of the anger diffuses, and they are on the road to a rational resolution.
I recall seeing a couple in an argument that started over a minor thing but had escalated into a full scale argument. During the heat of the argument, he made a statement to her and you could see it in her face, he had hit the funny bone. Within five minutes both were laughing hysterically and had forgotten the minor thing they had been arguing about and I honestly think they were laughing at how silly it was to argue about it. Ten minutes later they were hugging and afterwards, I understand they had a meaningful conversation working towards resolving issues that might have been building up. It was like watching someone ill drinking some sort of miracle tonic and healing in a short time.
Laughter eases tension
Technical theories aside, I know one thing: laughter eases tension. How often have all of us found ourselves in a very tense situation, and had it somehow diffused by laughter and/or humor? I can recall times when I have had a tense situation and someone would break the ice with a joke, the stress level went down immediately and all of us were able to focus more clearly on the challenging or difficult task at hand. I have seen doctors and nurses come to visit patients who were injured and/or facing a surgical procedure they were frightened or apprehensive about and when the physician made a joke, you could see the tension vanish. Constantly, one hears of those who spend volunteer time going to hospitals to make the patients in recovery laugh. I feel this is no coincidence.
How many of us have found ourselves later in life approaching things or situations which once may have filled us with terror instead offering us a chance to laugh at our own fears? I can think of many things we might have been terrified of as children that we often look back on and laugh at as adults. Sure, those fears were extremely and terrifyingly real at the time. But as we matured, for many of us, our fears became laughable. We were able to understand the meaning of the phrase, “Someday, we will look back on all of this and laugh.” I do think that is what God would want for us – that we come to realize that in the grand scheme of life just how silly our fears are, even when they seem to be “Goliaths” to us.
Laughter dispels fear
One area in which humor has proven to be a healing agent for me is in the area of how I look back on the terror I was once filled with in regards to the harsh fundamentalist teachings which tainted my spiritual and emotional growth as a human being and awareness of being a child of God. I do not in any way mean to downplay the fact that for many of us in the LGBT community, some of those fears may still seem very real. But there does come a time when we are able to realize that we were not truly seeing God with our hearts but rather allowing our clarity of God to be distorted by fearful teachings and beliefs, and can get to the point to see how silly and absurd some of those fears were.
The idea of a God who is as obsessed with our individual sexuality as many of those would allege seems a little silly to me now. I think God would be far more concerned about things that really do make a difference, such as the way we all treat one another. The idea that God is some sort of tyrannical judge and policeman who would send anyone who does not conform to a certain strict mold to burn in an eternal hell, while I find it tragic and offensive that some really do believe this, now seems a shade amusing to me. Having experienced the wonder, the joy, the unconditional Love that really is God it seems nothing short of ridiculous. (Sort of brings an interesting assessment of the old phrase I could never understand, “funny as hell.”)
I can attribute this to spiritual maturity. Just as we outgrow childhood fears and later laugh them off as “Wow, I cannot believe I was once afraid of that. What was I thinking?” I think that we come to understand that they are the product of imagination based on a lack of knowledge about the realities of the world around us. As we open our hearts and our minds and embrace the teachings of Jesus, when we come to understand the metaphor and beauty in His teachings, when we come to fully love and embrace who God made us to be and to be not afraid, we outgrow the fears that once kept us from knowing of God’s Love.
Laughter leads to spiritual maturity
I see those who continue to attempt to perpetuate fears in us as those who have not yet embraced spiritual maturity. They are still afraid of the dark, of the monster in the closet or under the bed. They are still fearful that when the bathtub drains that they could flow down the drain with the water. They do not wish to take a different approach to Jesus’ admonition that we “become as little children.” I feel that what He meant by that is that we embrace all the wonderful possibilities of life with a sense of joy, a sense of wonder and an eagerness to learn of the diversity of life and an infinite universe of unlimited possibilities God has blessed us with.
The idea of a God of unconditional and boundless love for everyone – regardless of our differences in diversity – is huge and frightening to some as the immenseness of the world can be scary to a small child. Black and white literalism is often a safer place to remain, where the need to learn and think for ourselves is not required, no risk is required, as the answers are given; parables only have one meaning, and taking the risk to let the Bible and the teachings of Jesus speak to us on a personal level rather than taking others’ word for it is “safer.” There is no need to confront the fear, but to remain in a safe place. But that can lead to spiritual atrophy. It can stunt our growth as children of God and healthy spiritual beings.
For those of us who choose to bravely face our fears, with trust in God’s Love and a smile, through our faith we can come to understand that there is no, nor was there ever any need, to be afraid. In childlike wonder, we dare to dream. But as we grow closer to God through trust and faith, we mature spiritually and learn to laugh at that which we were afraid of. I recall in an LGBT Christian support group once when we went around in a circle discussing how it was that we came to understand that God loved us just as we are. In several cases, as we would tell stories that were filled with painful memories, I noticed that some of us would laugh at how we could have possibly allowed ourselves to fall under the illusion that we were somehow “unacceptable” to God, Who made us as we are.
I have heard some pretty convoluted stories from those who cannot seem to outgrow the fear of an angry God or of a fundamentalist universe. From Harry Potter books being part of an “evil plot,” to the “gay agenda,” to the allegation that “anyone who does not belong to the (insert denomination here) church” is an “agent of the devil.” But I think of all the accusations and conspiracy theories I have ever heard, it was Jerry and his Tinky Winky that took the cake for me.
I am speaking of none other than one of the LGBT community’s most vocal opponents, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. His comments still offend and concern me. Most of what Mr. Falwell says I find outright offensive, not only to the LGBT community, but to the religion of Christianity in general. But I am no longer scared by his rhetoric once he went public with his whole public announcement about Tinky Winky. Now that was funny.
For those who don’t recall, Jerry came forth with the allegation that Tinky Winky, one of the characters from the innocuous children’s television show “Teletubbies,” was part of an evil plot to “promote the gay agenda.” His reasons for believing this involved the delusion he seemed to be having that Tinky was a male figure carrying a purse, he was purple, and (gasp!) he had a triangle – the “gay symbol” – on his head.
That kind of complete fanaticism to the point of buffoonery where he intended to portray an innocent figure on children’s television as an agent of the devil was, to most Americans – even most conservative Christians – utter silliness. And it led to a whole barrage of humor for both the LGBT community as well. Whether or not Jerry intended to, he turned Tinky into a new icon for the LGBT community. Just about every gay, bi, lesbian or trans person I knew ended up buying a Tinky Winky doll or some piece of merchandise with him on it after that event.
God, the cosmic sitcom producer
Many say that God has a sense of humor, to which I would agree, absolutely. However, I would not agree with the thoughts of some who maintain the pessimistic and antagonized views that God has a “cruel” sense of humor, or is some kind of cosmic prankster or practical joker having a laugh at their expense. I think these situations are all too often misinterpreted. I feel that God sort of sets the stage but it is we, in our frailty and humanity, who create the humor in the way we react to things. I think a better way of seeing it is that God is more of a cosmic sitcom producer, and we provide the funny situations in our frailty and humanity. Unless we learn to laugh at ourselves and learn from our mistakes that at times can have hilarious repercussions, there is no laugh track.
I, at times, look back on the days when I would try to repress and hide the person who I truly am from everyone and be someone who I wasn’t out of the, what I now see as, ridiculous fear that God nor anyone else would accept me for who I am. I look at the whole thing like my at the time being some goofy character in a cosmic sitcom with a zany plot. You know how in sitcoms, a character might try to hide some part of themselves, afraid that when others find out they will make fun of them or love them less, and go to hilarious pains to try and hide stuff, then when the truth comes out, they find out it was silly to hide all along (and the studio audience sighs “Awwwww” in unison – what I call an “Awwww inspiring moment”). That’s how I feel my life was sometimes. People who I was sure would not accept me as bisexual or polyfidelitous ended up accepting me, even at times when I was so sure they wouldn’t. It was all an assumption and a misunderstanding that they would not, and it was my mistake to assume they would not. A life lesson was learned that I carried with me. It’s always better to be yourself, be true to yourself, and stand up for what you believe in.
I look back on some Hollywood depictions of God as a gentle being and at the same time sort of a cosmic comic. I always thought George Burns did a great job of portraying this type of God in the 1970s film “Oh, God!” and, although I have not seen the movie, I understand Morgan Freeman did the same type of a take on God in this year’s “Bruce Almighty” opposite Jim Carrey. Although God only appears during the last few minutes of the movie “Dogma” (which was brutally picked apart by conservative groups for daring to portray God and Christianity in a non-orthodox light) God is portrayed as having a playful sense of humor and in a far different way than many would expect (and I won’t spoil that for those who have not seen the movie) I loved the response given as “the meaning of our existence.”
But I do wonder at times why there have been few movies that show Jesus Himself as having a sense of humor. (The closest I saw was the movie of the book “Joshua.”) I would love to see a script where Jesus returns and He turns out to be the really nice guy I know in my heart He is and always was, and the hilarity that would ensue when it turns out He loves LGBT people as much as He does everyone else, and when the Religious Right finds out that He is not anti-LGBT and embraces the very diversity they say He is against.
Laughing “with” not “at”
In any case, I can imagine that He would always be doing things to make people feel at ease, and making them laugh with good natured humor would be a part of that. I mean, He is supposed to be fully human and fully Divine, and to me someone with no sense of humor would not be fully human or Divine. I feel absolutely sure that He would not find certain things amusing, namely the type of humor that would have a cruel laugh at anyone’s expense. I find no humor in jokes intended to denigrate a race, a gender, a sexual orientation, a sexual practice, personal likes and dislikes, marital status, nor anything else of God’s Creation. Certainly, laugh at our own foibles, our own humanity, our own faults-we-know-we-have-and-are-working-on-resolving, but let us not succumb to a laugh at the expense of another that causes them emotional pain, devalues them or is detrimental to their well being in any way.
And speaking of that kind of humor, that which is not laughing “with” someone, but laughing “at” them: Being bisexual, and having a female and a male partner, I get the gamut of the stuff. Sometimes it’s good natured ribbing or joking around, others it’s unkind and derogatory. An example of the good natured would be what was said to me at church once when I had been up all night the previous night writing – this was back before I was in any relationships.
A guy came up to me and said, “Wow, you look tired.”
“Yeah, I hardly got any sleep,” I replied.
“Really … so what was her name?” He asked, the paused and added, “Ok, what was his name?”
This was followed by a smile and a chuckle on both sides (no pun intended) and I laughed right along with them.
There were other instances I can recall, such as the laughter discussing whether I would sing bass or tenor in choir and I said I could go both ways and there was much laughter that I took part in. But there are often in this world those who engage in humor at the expense of the LGBT community, humor that is derogatory and defamatory, and I have a theory on that.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that humor eases tension? Well, tension is created by fear, and many fear that which they do not understand. My theory on those who feel compelled to make derogatory humor about the LGBT community is that it is a defense mechanism and a mask for fear which is borne of ignorance and misunderstanding. Rather than feel hurt by these people, I feel sorry for them, as I feel compassion for anyone who is afraid like that. Many times I see it happen that when they realize that someone close to them is LGBT, and is being hurt by this type of humor, they no longer find it very amusing. In any case, humor that deliberately hurts someone is something it would hurt for me to find humor in. In the case where humor becomes a defense mechanism where people are getting hurt, rather than a method of diffusing tension, it is a gift misused.
Embracing our sense of humor
I have a theory that in the LGBT community, there are more than a few of us who have fully embraced the gift of a good sense of humor. Ellen DeGeneres comes to mind. The bisexual comedians Andy Dick and Michael Dane are two of my favorite comedians. I have always noticed that in many routines by those in the LGBT community who do stand up or other forms of comedy having worked the concept of learning to laugh at the initial reactions some people have to LGBT people, how misunderstandings were resolved, how former walls and barriers were broken down with humor. And that is true. I have witnessed people who might have initially met a homosexual, bisexual or transgender person and had an initial resistance to getting to know and understand them by allowing fears and apprehensions based on misunderstanding to get in the way, but these were dissolved when two people of different and diverse ways of life had a laugh together.
One thing I am finding though is that there are other Christians who I feel understand the concept of embracing good humor as a gift from God. At the church I belong to, it is not uncommon for the Minister to begin with a joke. Not the sterilized sanitized type of humor I have seen in some churches which seems to ignore many of the realities of life, but real and honest humor. Not the kind of humor where everyone seems afraid to laugh, or humor that relies on vulgarity but rather, the humor is often a play on words. I think that’s great. Many there have come to embrace that one can worship through embracing the joy and laughter in life.
I think that the one really funny moment I can recall over anything involved with a church service that perhaps wasn’t intended to be funny involved clinging to tradition in order to be a truly inclusive church. Let me explain what I mean by that: As part of the traditional service, during the offering we would have a musical piece, when the offering plates were brought forward we would all stand and sing, accompanied by a piano-based doxology. The full band would not play, but the piano would accompany everyone singing in unison. The doxology had not been updated for many, many years, and was of the sort you would hear in a very traditional Congregational Church.
This particular day the musical offering during the offering was the rousing number from “Godspell” called “All For The Best,” a very upbeat and rousing number which was sung by two very talented and enthusiastic young men, with all the flair and production of a Broadway show, followed by a round of applause from the entire congregation. For a moment it was silent, then everyone rose and sung the very traditional doxology, and the effect was two worlds colliding. The entire congregation laughed at the contrast, and I will never forget that. But it was a joyful moment, in which those who preferred a new type of dynamic worship with the traditional. It was just wonderful to hear laughter, rather than silence and nervousness over this. It was truly one of those moments when I felt at one with my belief that laughter is one of those gifts from God that I feel far too many church services miss out on.
Laughter connects us
I have already related how, when in a tense or tragic moment, or an argument something funny comes up, and the tension is lifted somewhat. Or during a minor tragedy, in some crazy way there are those who find the humor inherent in the situation when others may not be able to look past the immediate and see it. Humor has the potential to diffuse anger and reestablish the kind of human connection we all want to have and that I feel God would want for us to never lose sight of at all times. But another case can be when we make mistakes on a personal level, and instead of beating ourselves up over them, we are able to laugh at ourselves and our own shortcomings rather than wallow in misery over them. Just as in sitcoms, where someone going through a crazy chain of events eventually comes to a resolution and is able to laugh at their mistakes and learn from them, this can too happen in day to day life.
And sometimes, to be serious for a moment, it is not just allowing humor to carry us through the difficult times we may experience on a personal level, I think God uses it while using us to carry love and healing to others, to “pass it on.” Let me offer an example.
My own Mother is very, very ill and due to the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis and accompanying complications, often finds herself in severe depression. She has great faith in God, a God of Love, as I do, yet sometimes when she is suffering due to the pain and the crippling effects of the disease, she can lose sight of the joy and peace her faith brings her. I spend a great deal of my time caring for her, if nothing more sometimes than being her support.
When she is having a really bad spell, however, I find myself at a loss for what to say, other than to continue to offer what positive support I can, to offer what hope I can in her situation. In my heart, I know that there is hope, that she will experience healing, but in her current physical and mental state over it, she can, at times, lose sight of that. Part of what I think God wants us to do is to help provide the strength to others that they may have a difficult time locating. One way I can do this is to offer what I feel is one of the best natural forms of medication God gifted all of us with the ability to provide, and that is healing through laughter.
One day recently, she was having a very bad day. Already having had several surgeries, she recently fell and injured herself needing yet another one. In addition, she is dealing with a possible cross-country move, with problems in her marriage and a recent death in the family. Stress and emotional pain only exacerbate the already debilitating effects of MS. She called me, very depressed and crying, and I was at a loss for what I could do, or say to console her but I yearned to offer something to help her. I was by myself that afternoon, and so was she. I went to her house, to see if there was anything I could do.
I listened compassionately and offered what hope I could. I ran errands for her so she could rest. I made food for her, and began to help her around the house. Part of that was repacking old family items for her. During the process I ran across a ton of memories, especially amusing ones. As the afternoon carried on, conversation turned from the current situation to reminiscing. We laughed over amusing family reunions, we laughed over movies we hadn’t seen in a long time, we laughed at the kind of inside jokes only family members can find uproariously hilarious but that few others outside would find such a wealth of amusement in. By the end of the day she was feeling better, and she told me later that evening that just laughing together, while it had not completely done away with the difficulties she was experiencing, had offered some of the best medicine she could have gotten.
Seen in this light, “making a joyful noise” has a new and different meaning. It does not merely mean basking in God’s goodness and love through mere praise and adoration as we may be accustomed to displaying it, nor whistling a happy tune, nor just singing a joyful hymn with a smile. It means sharing the gift of laughter and humor, one of God’s many gifts to assist us through this sometimes wild and crazy thing called life on Earth as spiritual beings having a human experience. It means sharing the mirth with others. Keep in mind that just as with individual beliefs, individual choices in life, individual likes and dislikes, individual paths, or even individual sexualities that we are all different and diverse, and one size does not always fit all. Find out what makes your friends, family and loved ones tickled and share that sense of humor God gave you with them.
So, make a joyful noise. The next time you find yourself down, or someone else down, do what you can to make them laugh. It’s often times the best medicine.
And that’s no joke.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.