I grew up in the South during a momentous time. The Cold War and McCarthyism, the end of colonialism around the world, the development of nuclear weapons, and the rise of the civil rights movement: all were in the headlines and they had a great impact on the student generation of which I was a part. In my case, the world situation influenced my vocational choice. I decided that I wanted to commit my life to working for peace and racial justice.
Along with majoring in social ethics in graduate work at Boston University, I worked in refugee camps in war-torn Europe, attended citizenship seminars at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C., marched in the anti-war and civil rights movements and got arrested for civil disobedience in places like the South African Consulate in New York, the nuclear test site in Nevada and the White House in Washington, D.C.
This was all very serious stuff, life and death matters in fact. I saw that such efforts required not only strong commitment and a willingness to take a public stand against those things that make for war and injustice but also goodwill and a hopeful attitude no matter what. I noticed that most of the people I considered mentors demonstrated these qualities and that they usually had a sharp sense of humor. It may seem paradoxical but true: social change movements are often marked by a goodnatured outlook on life which is an antidote to despair, fear and burnout. Later in my life, I came to understand the importance of laughter in other arenas, particularly in healing and maintaining a sense of well-being, regardless of circumstance.
It may seem paradoxical but true: social change movements are often marked by a goodnatured outlook on life which is an antidote to despair, fear and burnout.
When the war in Vietnam finally ended, I went to a celebration in New York City hailing the end of hostilities. The main speaker was the comedian Dick Gregory who had been very active in the anti-war movement. He had declared a fast until the war ended but as the war dragged on and on (as wars tend to do), he increasingly began to look like he had come from a concentration camp. But he persisted in the fast right to the end.
During the question and answer period after his speech, someone said, “Dick, if there is another war, will you fast again? “No way,” he responded. “If there is another war I am going to go to McDonalds and EAT until that war is over!” This was vintage Gregory, finding humor in just about anything.
Meeting him prompted me to read his autobiography, improbably titled Nigger and dedicated to his mother. In the dedication he wrote, “Mama, whenever you hear that awful word, just remember that they are advertising my book!”
Dick’s autobiography tells about growing up under difficult circumstances. As a skinny kid he found himself picked on a lot, but he had two attributes that served him well. He was a very fast runner and whenever trouble loomed, he could disappear in a hurry. The other attribute was a quick sense of humor. He learned how to deal with the neighborhood bully by getting him to laugh and to enjoy being around him.
As he grew up he became involved in the civil rights movement. When asked to join the NAACP with a lifetime membership, he refused, saying he preferred to just pay for one week at a time in case someday, he’d wake up and discover the country had integrated. He traveled to Mississippi and went into a “whites’ only” restaurant. The waitress told him they didn’t serve Negroes, so he told her, “That’s all right. I don’t eat Negroes, I’ll just have a whole fried chicken.” When he was finally served, three men walked up behind him and said, “Boy, whatever you do to that chicken we are going to do to you.” “So” he said, “I just picked up that chicken and kissed it.” The three men— whom he called Ku, Klux and Klan-- left.
His wacky humor usually had a serious side, serving as part of his passion for building a fair and just society and along the way, maybe even being able to get his adversaries to laugh with him.
In reading the book it is evident how much his mother was the stabilizing force in his life. He credits his positive outlook on life to his mother who, he writes, “always had a big smile, even when her legs and feet swelled from high blood pressure and she collapsed across the table with sugar diabetes. You have to smile twenty-four hours a day,” Mama would say. ‘If you walk through life showing the aggravation you’ve gone through, people will feel sorry for you, and they’ll never respect you.’ She taught us that we have two ways out in life— laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing.”
He traveled to Mississippi and went into a “whites’ only” restaurant. The waitress told him they didn’t serve Negroes, so he told her, “That’s all right. I don’t eat Negroes, I’ll just have a whole fried chicken.”
I have learned so much from Dick Gregory and people like him. No matter what life throws at you, learn to react magnanimously and show a playful, whimsical attitude. Bring joy to those around you and be able to laughing at yourself. You begin to learn that honey attracts a lot more bees than vinegar, just as a joyful outlook attracts friends.
I find it fascinating to see how much humor there was in the civil rights movement. I once talked about this to Coretta Scott King, a dear friend, and she said, “We had lots of laughter in the movement. Many people have the mistaken idea that Martin was a solemn person, always serious. On the contrary, he had a great sense of humor and he loved having a good laugh and clowning around with his friends.”
Once Dr. King and some co-workers were going up an elevator and he was standing next to the operating buttons. A woman got on and, assuming he was the elevator operator said “Six please.” He punched “6” and said nothing. When she got off the elevator and the door closed, he burst out laughing.
His humor was evident even in dangerous situations. When three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, King and some of the SCLC staff people went to the town square in Philadelphia to decry the murders and to pray. In the back of the crowd were some very threatening characters. In his speech King said, “Some within the sound of my voice probably know what happened to Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner.” One person in the crowd replied in a loud voice, “You damned right.” At the end of King’s remarks, he asked Ralph Abernathy to give the closing prayer. Afterwards someone asked King why he didn’t say the prayer himself. He smiled and said, “In that crowd I wasn’t about to close my eyes!”
King loved stories, like the one of the man who responded to his call for nonviolence by saying, “Aw right, reverend, if you say so, but ah still think we oughta kill off a few of ’em.” Another said to a particularly rude bus driver, “I want you to know two things. One, I ain’t no boy. And two, I ain’t one of those Martin Luther King nonviolent Negroes.”
In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, King tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. He saw great humor in the white matrons who had no intention of being without their maids during the boycott. Therefore they picked them up every day and drove them home after work. One of them said to her maid, “Isn’t this boycott terrible?” “Oh, yes ma’am,” the maid replied. “It sure is. I just told all my young ‘uns to stay off the buses until they get this thing settled.”
Laughter and Well-being
Learning to laugh in the midst of trying to build a better world taught me something equally important: to be most authentic, a sense of humor has to come from within. A joyful person radiates joy and makes other people happy. I had an uncle who was a medical doctor, very successful and greatly loved by his patients. I discovered this in an unforgettable way when he removed my appendix that had almost ruptured. His visits to my hospital bed left me feeling better, not just because he was a good surgeon but because he always had a smile and usually some humorous story to tell. The last time I saw “Uncle Doc,” he was in a nursing home and knew he didn’t have long to live. But his nurse told me he still made the rounds to the others on his floor, playing his harmonica and telling funny stories. He lived until he was 101.
His example, and that of others like him—doctors, nurses, clergy—made me fascinated with the interplay of mind, body and spirit and how much of an impact our outlook and attitude have on our well-being. Norman Cousins, wellknown writer, was one of those who helped me explore this interrelationship. He had developed a strange, crippling disease—ankylosing spondyliis—that appeared to be incurable. The doctors were stumped and were unable to help him. Finally he took the situation in hand and decided that laughter (along with a lot of Vitamin C!) was good curative “medicine.” He watched old movies of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers and videos of “Candid Camera.” In time he began to improve and eventually he got well. In the book he subsequently wrote, Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins says that “laughter decreased the crippling inflammation, enhanced sound sleep and increased (his) well-being.” Out of this experience he began lecturing on the role of mind and spirit in healing. His reputation grew and he was even made a member of the staff of the UCLA Medical School.
Increasingly many in the medical profession have discovered the importance for well-being of a joyful outlook on life. There are now laughter therapy groups for cancer patients in some hospitals, with doctors like Bernie Siegel who teach the therapeutic value of humor. Even if we don’t get well, developing a good sense of humor makes life more bearable. Ermalinda Quiambao, a close friend of mine, told me she took my humor book—“How to Keep Laughing Even Though You’ve Considered All The Facts”—with her to the hospital for her chemotherapy appointments. She said it strengthened her immune system and made her visits to the hospital more pleasant.
G. K. Chesterton observed, “Life is serious all the time but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.” This is echoed by Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”
This attitude is rooted in ancient wisdom. As the book of Proverbs says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” (17:22) While it is spiritually true that living in a world whose creation is good should produce a cheerful heart, it is physically true as well. Seattle writer Stefan Merken is a great story-teller who has a gift for making people laugh. He says, “Humor is the basis of repair, not only of broken hearts but of shattered emotions. Without it you die.”
The Texas journalist Molly Ivins, who died of cancer in 2007, kept writing to the very end, and her columns were both profound and witty. In one of them she said, “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Cause you don’t always win. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”
Laughter. What a wonderful tonic it is for dealing with whatever comes our way. In good times or in bad, in health or in sickness, a cheerful heart will see us through.
G. K. Chesterton observed, “Life is serious all the time but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.”