Humor Saved My Life

"smile" by kennymatic

“smile” by kennymatic

“You’re only given one little spark of madness.
You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams

I think it’s safe to say that laughter saved my life.

Not in a keep-the-body-working escape-death sort of way, but in a keep-the-spirit-soaring sort of way, a feed-the-soul make-it-all-worthwhile sort of way.

Most of my early health issues took place between the ages of just arrived and six-years-old, and the biggest near-death moment of my youth happened at thirteen. I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent my teen years utterly terrified of death. Well, I’ve been thinking about that a bit lately – death itself, but also that paralyzing fear I had back then.

For some reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about humor.

How rejuvenating it can be, either in the moment, or cumulatively. How life-changing, life-preserving laughter has been for me.

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

I honestly don’t remember having much of a sense of humor before we moved. Before everything changed. I was nine then.

When you move, it’s often like hitting reset on a game. Sure, you’re the same person you were before you got in the car that took you from one spot to another. It’s not like we transform in a matter of minutes or hours.

Yet, in a way, we do.

My parents have converted my old bedroom into a comupter room and I was in there the other day and heard the most delicious sounds coming from the living room (aptly named for just such a moment). They were my very favorite sounds of all time. Laughter.

Maybe that’s what sparked this whole thought process. That laughter I heard through the walls. And the unfortunately passing of Robin Williams whom I didn’t know, but who helped keep me going through some of the roughest years of my youth.

What is a smile? A laugh?

I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know WHAT YOU THINK. To you, what is a smile?

To you, what is a laugh or laughter? How often do we really even give that a thought?

Did you know, on average, “an infant laughs nearly two hundred times a day; an adult, only twelve. . . .” (I. Ching)?

Sure, as adults we may have a lot more on our minds. We certainly have much more responsibility. But that only accounts for some of the change.

I remember my niece as a baby. She was without question the happiest kid I have ever seen. She would get so excited about things that she would applaud with her feet (on the floor, wall, whatever happened to be close enough for her to do the whole snare-drum ecstatic million-miles-an-hour rat-a-tat-tat).

Her feet were faster than the road runner and her face was all smile and big eyes.

That sort of thing is infectious. I mean if we could somehow capture that and inject people with it, we’d be without war or the senseless violence we’ve seen recently . . . that we see daily throughout the world. Apparently we can’t do that, though, and I’m just a dreamer. But what a thought.

I love this quote by Phyllis Diller: “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

"show us your smile" by benjaminasmith

“show us your smile” by benjaminasmith

I understand that a smile doesn’t make all the forces behind pain and sadness go away, but it can help put things back in order, if only for a brief time.

Of course, the more of it you do (smiling that is), the longer that time (of everything feeling as it should be) is extended.

One of my dearest friends is also one of the bravest people I know. She has faced her own mortality for years now and yet she’s the one person I know who is always smiling and laughing.

That’s just who she is.

She’s gregarious, sure, but it’s more than that. It’s as if her soul can’t be contained and she shares it every chance she gets. As if the “starstuff” inside her can’t help but shine.

Just thinking of her makes me smile. And spending a little time enjoying a glass of wine or sitting outside taking in her beautiful gardens and catching up with her always consists of one act without fail – unbridled laughter. Heaping bowls of the stuff.

My spirit is always nourished when I leave. Fed with laughter.

My best friend is one of the smartest people I know. And one of the funniest. He has a dry wit. A sarcasm that is subtle and yet not so subtle if you know him.

If you don’t know him, you might do a double-take and scratch your head sometimes, especially when he’s intentionally being goofy (but for the lucky people who do truly know him, that reaction is half the beauty).

If you do know him, you often spend your time like I do, smiling even when he’s not saying a thing.

What I respect most about his humor is that his sarcasim is never directed at anyone else. He, like me, is an intentional goofball at times, setting himself up to be the punch line.

"smile" by tamaki

“smile” by tamaki

Of course, I’m sometimes a goofball unintentinally as well. But, as Popeye so eloquently put it, “I am what I am.”

I’ve had an appreciation for humor for as long as I can remember.

When I was a boy, I recall my Grandpa Lucky snickering all the time. Most of that time I had no idea what he was laughing about, but the guy was always smiling. His smile was usually soft, quiet, yet filled the room with this unassuming radiance I hadn’t even been aware of until this very moment.

There’s a phrase, “he smiled with his eyes.” My gramps did that.

So did Grandma D. She was this sparkplug, this tough as nails dose of sunshine like in the quote from Thackeray: “A good laugh is sunshine in the house.”

She was sunshine in the house.

I remember them so clearly, the way they laughed. The way just seeing them made me lighter inside, buoyed on their mirth.

I remember watching movies with my dad, every weekend was Abbott and Costello. And weeknights were the old TV shows like Dick Van Dyke and All In The Family and M*A*S*H and Cheers and Andy Griffith . . . they were all centered around humor.

My best friend and I played golf last week and at one point he said – “Shazbat!” – a term coined by InterGalactic Traveller Mork from Ork. Hey, I did use the word goofball above.

While we were playing (that term was so apt as well), I would often be over a putt only to find a head cover or golf club strewn across my line. As if, out of nowhere, the universe said, let’s give this guy a challenge. And there was my best friend, mischief sparking in the corners of his eyes. That tell-tale sign on his face. That I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about smile we often have in our youth, but lose as we get older.

I can’t tell you how much fun that round of golf was. Plus, I had an excuse if I missed any putts. That makes me think of this quote attributed to Michael Pritchard:

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow old.
You grow old because you stop laughing.”

Here are a few other laughter quotes I like:

“A smile starts on the lips, A grin spreads to the eyes, A chuckle comes from the belly; But a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, Overflows, and bubbles all around.” – Carolyn Birmingham

“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.” – Mark Twain

That brings me back to the Robin Williams quote up top. The words “spark” and “madness.” The juxtaposition is so perfect.

Humor can spark to life from the darkness.

Some of the funniest actions or statements or moments are those that seem the opposite of normalcy, the antithesis of what is expected or accepted.

Robin Williams also stated the following in an interview: “The truth is, if anything I’m probably addicted to laughter.” Apparently, the man who made millions of people laugh, seemingly at will, had a very dificult time engaging with people one-on-one.

Laughter is a way in, so to speak. It can be a portal and also a force-field. At least it was for me. Like you see in Star Trek. A way to keep moving from one spot to another, and also to keep people at a comfortable distance.

I didn’t know Robin Williams. Wish I had. The guy was brilliant.

Robin Williams by BagoGames

Robin Williams by BagoGames

A lot of people have been writing about him and commenting not just as if they knew him, but as if they were him. As if their similar struggles made them privvy to his mind and his heart.

I imagine that those similar obstacles might make them privvy to the pain he may have experienced. They might be best suited to empathize with and to understand his possible perceptions (of himself and of the world), but they can’t know his intentions. Not truly.

Here’s what I do know, simply based on my own experience: Humor can be used as a means of connection and a means of defense. As a way to be part of and to belong to something larger than us, to others who are not us, and also as a way to stay safely off to the side.

It’s a remarkable paradox.

One of the things we all seek as we mature is power. I don’t mean world domination, but simply the idea that we might have some semblance of control over our lives (perhaps some influence over the way others see us and how they feel about us, and also over the way we see and feel about ourselves). In this regard, humor can be empowering.

To interact with others can be frightening and challenging. I always tell people that I am shy. And to a person, the response is, “Yeah right!” I was corrected a couple years ago and told by someone that what I really am is an outgoing introvert. And I guess that is more accurate.

As an introvert, though, it takes a lot of emotional energy to interact with others. There are so many variables beyond your control – how will they react, will they like me, will they have similar perceptions – which often lead to fear.

Humor is a great opening. A great way to ease the tension. A great way to connect.

Once you share a laugh, a smile, it’s as if you’ve connected on a much deeper level than any words can do. And I’m a word person. I love words. But a smile. A laugh. That’s the sort of gold that comes from the soul.

When I went through the challenges of bullying (about which I’m currently writing a book), that’s when I learned about humor. That’s when I began to develop my wit.

To disarm the bully. To get him or her or them to laugh. To engage the crowd of onlookers in unexpected laughter.

For some reason, making people laugh seemed to soften the blow. Seemed to lessen their disdain for me. The words they used suggested that they saw me as something I wasn’t. Their actions (either in participating, or in cheering, or in doing nothing) revealed how they saw me or how they tried to see me or, perhaps, how they hoped no one would see them.

But the humor, I realize now, helped me break through those distortions like a brick cast through a wavy mirror.

Back then, in those deep dark caves of the self, I hid the fightened part of me, the confused part, the hurt part, the enraged part. But other parts – the compassinate me, the empathetic me, the strong me, the humorous me – remained unhidden. It wasn’t the result of any conscious thought.

I never said to myself, make them laugh. But somehow I had a spark of madness in the moment when three boys held me and a fourth swung his fists.

For some reason I sparked. And later, I sparked again. And eventually I learned to spark instantaneously. As if my body, my soul, my mind all knew a smile sets everything straight.

Maybe that’s why Robin Williams was so funny. Maybe somewhere along the way, in the most uncomfortable of moments, he sparked. And when he did, maybe he saw that he could be unfettered and hysterical and that people had little choice but to laugh. Maybe he learned that once he put them in that state, it was easier for him to be himself.

I don’t know for sure. All I know is that’s how it was for me as a boy (though I never thought about it back then). And I’m pretty sure that’s why I am the way I am today.

The guy who smiles.

For decades people have asked me how I can smile all the time. Hey, I’m still here. That’s worth smiling about. I have an amazing family, awesome friends. More to smile about.

Did you know my college roommates threatened me bodily harm if I didn’t stop smiling all the time? Yep. Bet you can guess what I did.   🙂

But here’s another thing about smiling, about humor and laughter: it heals.

Watch a funny movie. Laugh out loud. Spend some time with someone who makes you smile or laugh. Then consciously slow down and notice how you feel.

Sure there are scientific explanations. There are physiological reasons and psychological reasons why a smile or a laugh might help with stress, might make you feel refreshed or energized or content. Maybe even happy.

But there’s also this:

“When you do laugh, open your mouth wide enough
for the noise to get out without squealing, throw your head
as though you were going to be shaved, hold on
to your false hair with both hands and then laugh
till your soul gets thoroughly rested.” – Josh Billings

As Birmingham stated above, a good laugh bursts from the soul.

It’s one way the deepest part of you gets out. And it’s one thing, when shared, that can change your mood, your day, your life for the better. It can make the day of those around you a little brighter, too.

I can’t think of a better reason than that.

Keep smiling! Keep laughing!

“smile” by kennymatic and “show us your smile” by benjaminasmith and “Robin WIliams” by BagoGames used via Creative Commons License on Flickr, while “smile” by tamaki is used via this Creative Commons License.