Laughter as an Escape Route

Inviting levity in



“We should open a funeral home…”

“What?” I interrupted.

“…but make it funny!” my friend said. We’ve been knocking business schemes around for 19 years, fully convinced one will make us rich. There was a candle phase and another spent fantasizing about the day she’ll hire me to teach meditation on film sets. She’d called to share the latest.

“So every service would include a comedy show?”

“Basically. Everything is so humorless these days. The world of grief and trauma could use a little levity,” she answered.

“You’re brilliant,” I said for the millionth time.

***

Tears and laughter fall on two sides of the same coin. In graduate school my voice teacher had us bounce breath and sound on our expanded lower rib cage while imagining both feelings. He taught that laughing and crying are related, and said our technique should rest on imagined outpourings of emotion and the real physiological impulses that accompany them. If you’ve ever laughed during a sad conversation you’ve probably experienced something similar.

Recently—after a long period of struggling to talk about a painful situation without tears, and another avoiding it all together unless asked—I found my sense of humor had arrived on the scene. At our first post-quarantine dinner party, the subject of fathers and daughters came up, and surprising myself, I made light of things.

“Yeah, at 60 my father dyed his hair, married some woman off Twitter, and moved West,” I said with a shrug. We all laughed.

At a party the next week I did it again: “My dad fed my first goldfish Doritos in 1991, and it died. I should have known he didn’t have his act together then.”

Eventually I brought the whole thing up with my therapist.

“I’ve been making a lot of… dad jokes,” I said. “What do you think about that?”

She didn’t miss a beat in offering that humor is the healthiest coping mechanism. She sees my jokes as a positive development, she said; they mean I’ve sat with the grief and come to a place of acceptance, which allows room for more humor. It doesn’t mean what happened is okay, she added—it just means I can exist with it differently now. I felt like I’d earned a gold star.

***

In an article on laughing while talking about trauma, Psychology Today points out the obvious—that laughter can be a defense mechanism used to protect people from the depths of their pain. Communicating suffering with emotions that match the experience is essential to processing it, the piece concludes. This is important to note, but laughter’s positive effects on painful situations shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran explores laughter in his 2004 book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. He suggests that laughter developed as a tool for humans to signal to other humans that situations were not threatening. It’s like when your dog sneezes repeatedly to let you know he’s playing a game.

Ramachandran also proposes that laughter might aid in healing trauma because it helps us learn to associate pain with positive emotion. This could explain the “inappropriate” or nervous laughter that invades when you least expect it. But laughter does more than stimulate positive emotion; studies suggest hearing or participating in laughter activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” framework that’s essential to our wellbeing and emotional regulation. Often hijacked and disrupted by trauma, our parasympathetic nervous system offers that safe, soft, relaxed feeling that can be cultivated with intentional breath.

***

Oxford defines levity as humor or frivolity, especially in the treatment of a serious matter. The word comes from the Latin levitatum, meaning lightness, both literal and figurative, and levis, or light in weight. In 16th century physics, levity was used to name the property of physical bodies, the opposite of gravity, or tending to rise.

It can be tempting to slog through the healing process with tidy to-do lists and self-restraint. Progress often feels elusive as we inch along. But I find the most powerful moments are often born of unexpected mess: the reality of living, a few dark jokes and laughter that follows, moments of shared honesty you didn’t see coming.

The worst—and best—fits of laughter, inappropriate or not, are braced by friendship. I am talking about that first or second grade kind of feeling, two friends collapsing into giggles, feeding off each other’s amusement until someone loses control—probably in a classroom. You’re trying to contain yourselves but one glance launches a spurt, a chitter, an explosion. Glares from the teacher make it worse.

The world is all too full of serious matters, but maybe in first grade we had something figured out. Lean into shared laughter, however unexpected or unwelcome, and let the levity in. Releasing pressure, the balance to gravity’s heavy weight—together in lightness, we tend to rise.

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Between you and me—

Tomorrow is Father’s Day. ICYMI, here’s something For the Fatherless on Father’s Day.

Regular, available, easygoing, errand-and-life-sharing friendship is my favorite kind. We’ve reached the dog days of summer here in the South and I am actively looking for pools. I am also looking for an ocean. For the first time since March 2020 I am feeling energized and brave around making big changes and oceans always help with that.

For Juneteenth, an interview with James Baldwin that never aired. Wishing you laughter and ease this week. Take care.

WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE is written by Lauren Maxwell. If you enjoy this newsletter, you can support its growth by becoming a sponsor, clicking the heart, sharing online, or forwarding to a friend. It all helps!

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