A Spoonful of Sugar
Presented May 9th, 2021 on Zoom Rev. Fiona Heath
I love doing laughter yoga together. It is very easy for me to get serious about our spiritual community and our purpose to deepen, nurture and act. To worry endlessly about the pain and suffering happening all over the world.
Laughter yoga reminds me over and over again that a sense of humour is a moral virtue, perhaps even a necessity for living well.
Poet Maya Angelou says “Laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It’s the sweetest thing one can do for oneself & one’s fellow human beings.”
Laughter yoga itself is used to help people dealing with difficult situations. In support groups where people might be sharing their struggles with addictions or cancer or other traumas, the facilitator might invite people into laughter yoga as a way to celebrate – even in the face of great adversity.
Laughter is used to break the strain of the struggle, to remind people that life is absurd and unfair and foolish. That we have times we need to cry about the unfairness and times we need to laugh.
I once heard an indigenous storyteller who said that because their history is so sad their stories are funny. They tell stories of mischievous raven or trickster coyote to remember that life is strange and foolish and often out of our control.
In North American white privilege, perfection, professional achievement oriented world we tend towards the serious and productive. Making a mistake can be mortifying.
But also very funny.
A woman texts her boss at the end of her very first day at a new job saying “Heading out. Love you.” The text was intended for her boyfriend.
Another woman is in a grocery store checkout. The cashier says “hello” and she replies “artichokes” because that’s what the cashier was holding in her hand.
A person drives up and places their order at a fast food drive-thru. Then they hear “could you drive up to the speaker? You’re talking to the trash can.”
Sharing embarrassing stories, sharing the laughter, helps remind us we are not alone in our foibles. We are all imperfect human beings doing our best to be human.
Humour is a moral virtue because it connects us emotionally to others, if it is allied with compassion and hope.
Of course, there is mean spirited humour which divides rather then connects. The sarcastic or cruel or putting down humour that “others” another person or group or nation. These jokes create bonds through exclusion or targeting someone else with less power or status.
If you are of a certain age you will remember jokes about blonde women or people from newfoundland that were designed to denigrate, to make us feel smarter than those people.
For humour to be a moral virtue, it is practiced with compassion and hope. Kind humour offers inclusion, lets us laugh with rather then at someone. This warm humour elevates us, makes us lighter, helps feel connected and safe.
A sense of humour is considered to be a transcendent virtue, a virtue that helps people connect to the larger universe and provide meaning. Other transcendent virtues are gratitude, hope and an appreciation of beauty.
All of these virtues are especially important to cultivate in times of crisis. They protect us from despair, reminding us there is more in life than this terrible moment.
Like heartbreak, but better, humour opens us up the world, brings us out of ourselves.
A man gets into the passenger seat of a car outside Starbucks. He’s busy talking on his cell phone. Once he finishes the call the driver politely lets him know he’s gotten into the wrong car.
A woman is being interviewed for a nanny position. She is told the job will involve light housekeeping. She gamely replies “I’ve never kept a lighthouse before but I’m willing to try.”
These are all true stories. Shared on twitter with strangers in recognition of our shared goofiness, reminding us we are not alone. (taken from Broken (in the best possible way), Jenny Lawson, 2021)
Finding compassionate humour in difficult times lift us up and brightens our mood. Humour is a transcendent virtue that connects us to the larger whole and provides meaning.
Writer Thomas Carlyle said, “True humor springs more from the heart than from the head; it is not contempt, its essence is love.”
In the Jewish tradition there is an old Talmudic story in which a Rabbi meets two badhanim (baa -da – neem) – people whose work is to cheer people up with humour. They seek out the depressed and sad and try to help. The Rabbi listens to them describe their job and says their work is worthy in this life and the next.
Humour is a transcendent virtue.
These badhanim don’t just help sad people, they also work to mend quarrels between people. Comedy and conflict resolution.
Humour is a great uniter, it dissolves anger through laughter, through recognizing the absurdity of being human beings alive and foolish and making mistakes.
I’m sure you can all think of tense or difficult situation where there is a moment when things could unravel and then someone makes a small joke and defuses the situation.
Laughter is a kind of stealth bomb disposal unit. It shifts the mood in a room, radiating out and dispersing fear and tension. After all laughter is contagious – it’s hard not to laugh when others are laughing even if you don’t know why.
There is a short video on social media with a baby and their dad. The dad is trying to feed the baby and both are giggling. That’s it. And I laugh with them. Every time.
Now it is true that when we are our most human it can be painful and embarrassing in the moment. We are betrayed by our bodies or our brains. Or our emotions. Or life lets us down unexpectedly.
It takes time for painful feelings to dissolve so we can embrace the funny aspect. Reparations have to be made if relationships have been greatly damaged. And some things just stay sorrowful. There are tragedies too immense, too emotionally horrifying to be found funny. 9/11, the holocaust.
But the saying “comedy is tragedy plus time” has a lot of truth to it. Humour helps put events in their proper perspective. It helps us climb back down the mountain of pain or righteousness or embarrassment and accept our human frailties.
When we laugh together we are recognizing each other’s inherent worth and dignity.
The bleak humour of people who work in war zones or hospitals honours the life of those still alive. It might seem horrible to those outside the situation but it bonds the people struggling in difficult conditions.
As we continue to live in these stressful times laughter is necessary. I have turned to beloved sitcoms during the lockdown knowing that they will make me laugh even as the news makes me cry. Sitcoms are kind of an escapist humour that lets me hide from the world for awhile and feel better.
I also turn to the late night talk show hosts. Humour plays a vital role in maintaining personal relationships and in building social ties but humour is also the trickster virtue that challenges oppressive social norms, and points out injustice.
Hosts like Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee or This Hour has 22 Minutes help me manage my feelings of anger and confusion by expressing outrage through humour. They help keep people in power accountable and reveal uncomfortable truths.
You might want to watch Seth Meyer’s trailer for the fictional film White Saviour which shows how many films about black people are really about the white person beside them.
Laughter can diffuse tension, heal frayed relationships. Humour can bring us together affirming us as we are, human and foolish. Humour can also be subversive, revealing just how human and foolish we are, helping us hear uncomfortable truths about how we live. Truths we need to hear like how there is still sexism and racism and homophobia and income inequality in society.
There is always work to be done. But we can do it with an element of fun.
Most religious traditions have a humour element – the badhamins in the Jewish tradition. In the buddhist tradition the simple koans are often absurd and unanswerable. In Islam there is the wise fool, Nasreddin Hodja.
Humour may be a virtue but part of its virtue is to keep us grounded and humble. A mature religious tradition knows how to laugh.
Luckily we have the UU Hysterical Society. The largest UU community in North America is the UU Hysterical Society on facebook. I believe 80,000 people belong to the group. Some of you are members.
The UU Hysterical Society was founded a few years ago by Liz James of the Saskatoon congregation. The tag line is “mirth and dignity” – a play on our first principle. The purpose is to be funny without being jerks and to create community without emails.
On the website the theology page consists of answers to the deeply philosophical question: How many UUs does it take to screw in a light bulb?
The original answer which has been around for years is: We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
As good UUs, the UU Hysterical Society offers multiple answers:
I don’t know. That’s the purview of the Building and Grounds Committee. I’ll email them, and get back to you after 23 reply alls.
None. You can’t change the light bulb unless it wants to change. –
Seven. Six to form an exploratory committee and submit a proposal to the Board, and one to get sick of the light being burned out and change it when nobody is looking.
UUs? Or Unitarians? Because if it’s only Unitarians, it’s only ONE. Definitely NOT three. And if it’s Universalists, it’s every single last one of us.
Humour and humility have the same word origin in ancient latin. Poking fun at ourselves keeps the ego humble and keeps religious authority in check.
Humour reminds us that no matter how high we might rise in the world there is always a chance we will change clothes in our office while still on a zoom meeting, as a member of our parliament did recently.
One of the good things to come out of this pandemic with everyone working from home is that it has peeled off some of our professional layers, in his case literally, letting us connect as ordinary humans, breaking down social barrriers.
Humour helps us. Without a sense of humour we would be less wise and less loving.
Kind hearted humour helps us be more compassionate, more empathic. People feel safer around those people they can laugh with. After all we are vulnerable when we laugh – really deeply laugh – we can double over, laugh until we cry, laugh until we pee a little. Shared laughter implies a level of trust and security.
As poet W. H. Auden wrote “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
All of them make me laugh.
May you have many people in your life who make you laugh.
May you find ways to laugh even in the midst of struggle.
May humour protect you. May humour help us see truly. May humour be a virtue.
So Say We All.