Life is serious business. Take the matter of being born. It isn’t easy for any of the principal characters in the drama.
Then there’s the ongoing struggle to grow up – learning to walk, and falling down again and again without throwing in the proverbial towel and crawling through life.
The challenge of learning to speak…conjugating irregular verbs…that’s no walk in the park. To say nothing of spelling and learning when to say I instead of me, as in ‘this sermon is meant for you and I,” which is an over-correction, since the object of the preposition ‘for’ requires the sentence to say, ‘this sermon is meant for you and me.’ See what I mean?
Hopefully, you and I will enjoy the sermon. If not, we’ve both failed. Or I have, at least.
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks quotes the linguist Geoffrey Miller who says that ‘most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. “To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. The most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?”
Miller believes that humans learn the words so they can more effectively impress and sort out potential mates. Sounds Freudian to me. What about you?
As soon as you stand on your own two feet and walk without falling and talk without making too many grammatical errors, you have to shake off your childish narcissism and consider the struggles that all the other people are carrying, and you have to ‘have compassion for everyone you meet.’
Growing up is serious business.
Then there’s all the other chapters…figuring out this love thing works, and how it works for you, to say nothing of college applications and SAT’s and marriage and divorce…and the religious thing about God and death. And taxes. And death.
Woody Allen said, “I’m still obsessed by thoughts of death, I brood constantly. I keep wondering if there is an afterlife and if there is, will they be able to break a twenty?”
It’s all very serious business, this business of living a life, to say nothing of trying to live a meaningful life.
So you have to ‘lighten up’ a bit…from time to time, remembering that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
Gregory Engel found himself taking life too seriously so he sent the following letter to Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of Car Talk on NPR – better known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers” Both of them are graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school for serious thinkers.
Gregory Engel writes: “I’ve listened to your show for a while now. I must say, I was a lot like you guys. Carefree. Blabbed a lot. This was before my life took a tragic turn. A turn which, I sense, both of you are on the verge of taking. There is no help for me, unfortunately. But perhaps my story will help prevent you from falling into the abyss that I have been thrown.
It started out innocently enough. I began to think at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.
I began to think alone -“to relax,” I told myself – but I knew it wasn’t true. Thinking became more and more important to me, and finally I was thinking all the time.
I began to think on the job. I knew that thinking and employment don’t mix, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I began to avoid friends at lunch time so I could read Thoreau and Kafka. I would return to the office dizzied and confused, asking, “What is it exactly we are doing here?”
Things weren’t going so great at home either. One evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life. She spent that night at her mother’s.
I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker. One day the boss called me in. He said, “Greg, I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don’t stop thinking on the job, you’ll have to find another job.” This gave me a lot to think about.
I came home early after my conversation with the boss. “Honey,” I confessed, “I’ve been thinking…” “I know you’ve been thinking,” she said, “and I want a divorce!” “But Honey, surely it’s not that serious.” “It is serious,” she said, lower lip aquiver. “You think as much as college professors, and college professors don’t make any money, so if you keep on thinking we won’t have any money!”
“That’s a faulty syllogism,” I said impatiently, and she began to cry. I’d had enough. “I’m going to the library,” I snarled as I stomped out the door.
I headed for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche, with NPR on the radio. I roared into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors…they didn’t open. The library was closed.
To this day, I believe that a Higher Power was looking out for me that night.
As I sank to the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye. “Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?” it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinker’s Anonymous poster. Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting. At each meeting we watch a non-educational video; last week it was “Porky’s.” Then we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting.
I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home. Life just seemed…easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking.
An integral part of my recovery has been your show. I regret, however, that your show has occasionally caused me to have a thought. Sometimes even two. I have found myself wanting to ask my car mechanic…to ask him…questions! Yes, questions–a sure sign of the presence of thinking. But I have work to do. I regret that unless you stop answering callers questions in meaningful ways, I will be forced to discontinue my participation in your, until recently, completely mediocre show.
I’d be glad to take you to a TA meeting, when you’re ready. Good luck, Gregory Engel Englewood, Colorado.”
The Bible says, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Actually it doesn’t say ‘laughter is the best medicine,’ but too many people have misquoted the passage from Proverbs 17:22, which actually says “A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones.”
I like ‘laughter is the best medicine.’ It sounds more inviting, and we know that laughter produces endorphins which give you a natural high because the body produces a morphine-like substance that takes away the pain – mental as well as physical.
Laughter helps us to lighten up.
Sometimes a good cry helps, too.
Isn’t that an interesting phrase: a good cry! I read that there is scientific evidence to suggest that the tears shed during emotional crying get rid of stress chemicals –toxins that have accumulated in your brain during a stressful trauma. The theory says that the tears release endorphins, which is the same chemical released with laughter – so a good cry can make you as happy as a good laugh
So let’s go back to the Bible, the Hebrew Wisdom part of it in the book of Ecclesiastes (also called the teacher) 3:4 that says, “For everything there is a season…a time to weep and a time to laugh.”
No wonder there are so many great Jewish comedians.
A good, active sense of humor is not only good for you – but a sense of humor is also a virtue, which makes you ‘good.’
In Christian theology the cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity (or love.)
An active sense of humor, then, doubles its reward – it helps you to feel better and it makes you a better person…it’s a way of doing well by doing good.
A good, active sense of humor is a gift. We talk about the five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and the sense of smell. The loss of any of those senses makes life a little more of a challenge, but the loss or lack of a sense of humor makes life unbearable.
Which leads me to the point, or justification for this sermon: humor is one of the key ingredients to an authentically religious life!
Of course dogs have a much better sense of smell than we do. A dog has 200 million smell cells in its nose. People only have 5 million, depending on the size of the nose.
I don’t know, myself, how they count those smell cells, but a dog gets a lot of information about its world just by smell.
Most of the information dogs get by sniffing we can do without. In fact having 200 million smell cells would tend to get in the way of eating at a Chinese restaurant, and make spicy Indian food impossible.
Every morning I see dog walkers at Compo Beach pulling dogs away from tree trunks and fire hydrants; they’re reluctant to leave. If the dog owner had 200 million smell cells he, too, would stop at all the fire hydrants and his dog would have to pull him away!
But dogs remind us to take time to smell the flowers, or wake up and smell the coffee.
Each of the senses is important to our lives, of course. But imagine a life without a sense of humor.
I wonder if we humans are the only ones with a sense of humor? The dog has a much greater sense of smell, to be sure, but we have the equivalent of 200 million brain cells whose work is completely devoted to humor in order to produce all that pain-killing morphine.
So, humor is a virtue. A virtue, by definition, is any admirable quality, feature, or trait
The word virtue is rooted in the Latin word vir, man, or human, from which we get the word ‘virile.’ My definition of a virtue, then, is any quality, trait or characteristic that helps to make us human; that which helps us to be civilized…humanized.
A sense of humor is one of the most important gifts we have in life…it takes the edge off of the seriousness of life; and life is filled with lots of heavy, serious stuff.
Diana Bell heard a line from a movie, The Summer House, that she passed on to me: “Life is bloody awful without being unhappy as well.”
Life’s difficulties are helped by humor. Depression is another thing altogether.
Suffice it to say that depression comes in many flavors ranging from sour to disgusting and obnoxious.
Reactive depression is a natural response to a loss – a death, divorce or disability – a big dip in the Dow Jones Average, and comments from talk radio hosts who call a thirty-year old grad student a slut. It’s depressing, of course, but it’s also the source of late-night humor for Jon Stewart and Steven Cobert.
Then there’s clinical depression, which has a range on a scale of minor to major – some clinical depression is helped by medication, but some can be fatal.
A good cry helps to deal with loss – reactive depression – but clinical depression requires medical intervention.
The word clinical derives from the Greek klinein meaning to slope, lean or recline. Hence kline is a couch or bed, klinikos is sloping or reclining and Latin is clinicus. An early use of the word clinical was, ‘one who receives baptism on a sick bed’.
Humor is built-in medicine. Any medication must be taken in appropriate doses.
Like all medicine, you can o d (overdose) on humor — it can get out of control. That’s why we sometimes say, “This is no laughing matter.”
Sometimes that assertion only evokes more laughter.
For example, on Friday I went to the fridge in the church kitchen to fix my sandwich for my weekly meeting with my colleagues, and I reached for the big plastic jar of Dijon mustard, holding it by the top, which was not screwed on the jar slipped from my hand, crashed to the floor and splashed upward showering me from head to toe with mustard.
I said a bad word…then I stood there for a second or two to take in the enormity of the situation. I couldn’t believe the extent to which I was covered…my suit jacket and shirt, my pants and shoes…my beard, eye glasses and hair.
Bobby came by – bless him, and helped me deal with the mess, working with me to wash the mustard off my clothing, then I went to the bath room to wash it from my beard and hair and face.
I was late for my lunch meeting and explained what happened and my good friends who thought it was very funny – even more so since I told them I had been working on a sermon on humor and they chimed in, “It’s a perfect sermon illustration!”
There are some things that are only funny in retrospect! What’s that television program – America’s funniest videos? I think it would have been a prize-winning video, and I’m glad no one caught it on camera!
Attempts at humor can get you in trouble, of course.
Some humor is downright distasteful and hurtful, if you are the chief Federal District Court judge in Montana it’s sure to get you into trouble.
Judge Richard Cebull, who is the chief Federal District Court judge in Montana recently acknowledged that he had sent a joke to some friends that contained sexual and racist slurs against President Obama.
He apologized directly to the President, which Rush Limbaugh did not do to Sandra Fluke – but Limbaugh’s slur was not intended to be humorous, just outrageous.
Judge Cebull acknowledged that the joke he sent around to email friends displayed what he called ‘very poor judgment.’ I guess it calls into question his fitness for being a judge, what he himself calls ‘poor judgment.’
He said he didn’t send the joke because he’s racist – he sent it, he said, because it was anti-Obama.
He also said that he didn’t intend the email to become public. Isn’t it funny how sending a private email to a few friends can wind up becoming so public.
Attempts at humor have gotten a lot of folks in trouble.
A New York Times editorial suggests the judge ‘forfeited the trust Americans need to have in the impartiality and judgment of members of the federal bench,’ and concludes that ‘he should resign.’
Clumsy attempts at humor can be very damaging.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Wrong! Some humor is a form of bullying.
Jokes that are racist, sexist, homophobic are hurtful, of course; prejudice is reinforced with that kind of ugly humor.
Humor must be used cautiously and carefully and somewhat sparingly, of course, but sometimes we just need to lighten up!
Humor, then, is serious business – and big business, of course.
We have to be careful of sarcasm disguised as humor — the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.
Sarcasm is sharp and bitter – distasteful. It cuts; it hurts.
The word sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmos which means ‘to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.’
Humor is a mature defense mechanism to help guard against overwhelming anxiety. It helps us to endure the inevitable suffering life delivers.
At wedding ceremonies I often say, “It’s love that brought you together; a good sense of humor will go a long way to keeping you together.”
Humor is, in a way, the one sense we can’t live without. When we lose our sense of humor, it’s a long afternoon, and if such a painful loss carries into a second day, we’re in trouble.
Sometimes an attack of nervous laughter gets out of control. I’ve had brides break out in uncontrolled laughter while standing at the altar.
Some years ago a well-known writer in the church, John Fuller, invited me to work with him on a book he wanted to write about a laughing Jesus. We talked about it, but we never got to write it before John died.
If you Google ‘the laughing Jesus’ you will find a book by that title written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.
You’ll also find several portraits of Jesus laughing, reminiscent of the laughing Buddha.
The gods have to have a good sense of humor.
“A humorless saint is a sad saint. A humorless sage is something other than wise.”
Now what do you suppose he meant by that?
Groucho: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
If he said that to hostess after a dinner party it would be cutting – sarcastic. If he said it at the close of his own performance, it would be good humor. A good sense of humor helps us to laugh at ourselves – it’s an expression of humility, and humor and humility go well together.
Groucho knew the difference. He had some great lines. I recall a line from Groucho where he said, “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”
Woody Allen’s humor is often self-deprecating. He about taking a speed-reading course and said, “I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.”
Woody said, “Not only is there no God, but try to get a plumber on the weekends!”
Humor must be used cautiously and carefully and somewhat sparingly, of course, but sometimes we just need to lighten up!
Carl Sandburg flavored his poetry with humor, which is often missing in poetry. Poets tend to take themselves very seriously; sometimes too seriously.
Sandburg’s poetry provided an appropriate balance between the serious and the humorous; between the need for self-respect and the need for humility.
Sandburg writes about the traveler who asked, “Do you have a criminal lawyer in this town?” One answered, “We think so, but we haven’t been able to prove it on him.”
Humor is proof that life is serious – so serious you have to laugh at its seriousness, from time to time.
A man who takes himself too seriously is ludicrous, providing lots of material for the late-night talk shows.
The well-regarded clergyman, Reinhold Niebuhr, summarized it nicely: “The less we are able to laugh at ourselves the more it becomes necessary and inevitable that others laugh at us.”
The Laughing Jesus, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
“Let’s respect ourselves and admire each other…let’s stop being so sober and celebrate our existence. Let’s stop being so frightened of life and adopt a pronoid perspective. (Pronoid is the opposite of paranoid.) Let’s live lightheartedly and revel in the humor of our predicament. Because life is a black comedy so ironic that most of us miss the gags. ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience too terrified to laugh,’ as Voltaire quips. So, let’s lighten up and enjoy the show. Then we’ll understand why…Jesus laughs. Because life is funny. But only the heretics get the joke.
…we need to laugh more and worry less…we need to heed the Pagan Gnostic Lucian when he advises:
‘The best way to live is to be in the present moment and get along as best you can, trying to see the funny side of things.’
“If you can learn to laugh at yourself you’ll have a lifetime of amusement. And when you don’t take yourself so seriously, it is easier to be good-humored with others. We are one human family. So, let’s learn to play nicely.”
Closing Words: from Philip Appleman
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice —
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good —
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.