Monday, January 21, 2008

Laughter and Humor

Man has been blessed with many gifts which separate us from the other animals, and each of them is precious. But for me, one of the most precious of all is laughter. Some other primates apparently share some degree of this gift, but only Man has honed it on the strop of irony and the unexpected to a razor sharpness.

Any laugh is worth its weight in gold, but it is those very rare laughs that are so long and hard that the eyes squeeze shut and the body rocks back and forth and the stomach hurts and one gasps for breath which are, as the commercials say, truly priceless.

Laughter is of course a physical response to one’s own sense of humor, and not all humor produces laughter. And while laughter involves specific physical reactions, the sense of humor that triggers it varies slightly from culture to culture and widely between individuals. Slapstick humor, like that which made the Three Stooges famous...the pie in the face, the stepping on a rake largely universal, but humor runs the gamut from the out-loud guffaw to the Mona Lisa smile. (British and American humor is often lost on one another). One's personal sense of humor dictates that individual's response, and I’ve always delighted in my own, probably because of the strange connections my mind makes between things.

Laughter is the most overt form of humor, and the therapeutic benefits of all types of humor...and even of smiling...are now widely recognized by science. This, to me, is something of a "DUH!", since all humor produces a sensation of pleasure, and sometimes the most subtle forms of humor can be the most pleasurable. I think immediately of the covers and cartoons in the New Yorker magazine.

I’ve always loved and often quoted one definition of Puritanism: “A Puritan is one who lives in abject fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.” One doesn't have to wear a buckled hat or dress all in black with a dash of white trim at the collar to be a Puritan...just look around you. I often wonder what fundamentalist Islamic militants or Christian religious zealots use for humor? What do they find to laugh at. Obviously, very little, and I feel sorry for them. A person who cannot laugh is a person with a withered soul.

I find I don’t laugh as much as I used to, and I miss it. There are reasons why, I suppose. I note that I spend more time on the inner smile than the out-loud laugh. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the simple fact that much humor is based on surprise and the unexpected, and the older one grows, the more often one is exposed to similar things, so the novelty somewhat wears off, rather the same way that a once popular sitcom seems less funny the more often you watch it. It isn’t necessarily that it is less funny, but that you have heard it, or something very similar, before. The spontaneity wears off.

I am currently reading a book (“The Book of Lamb; the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore) which proves I haven’t lost the ability to laugh out loud just yet.

I’ll close this entry with something that moved me nearly to tears when I first read it: an elementary school teacher, just before Christmas, asked her students to write down what they loved most about Christmas. There were the standard “Santa Claus” and “getting presents” and so forth. But one little boy, responding to the question, said simply: “My mother’s laugh.”

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

No comments: