Sunday, January 23, 2011

We Laugh, We Cry

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Jan. 23, 2011

I’ve always gotten some of my best bellylaughs at funerals and memorials. I didn’t know this could happen until my dad died. He’d been sick for a long time and when the call came from my mother, that April day in 1970, it was no surprise.

All the way home to Goldendale from Denver, on the plane to Portland and in the car on the 100 mile trip east up the Columbia River with whoever it was who had come to pick me up at the airport, I kept thinking about how I would manage at the funeral. Would I be able to bear it without becoming distraught and weepy? I had never been much good at being public with my sorrow.

I was 28 years old and I had never seen a dead person, let alone somebody I loved as dearly as I loved my father. I had huge regrets about my relationship with him though; I’d become the black sheep overnight, rather than the golden girl I’d always been in my family. It was over religious differences, primarily, including the fact that I’d upped and married a Unitarian man and hadn’t asked my dad to perform the wedding ceremony.

And now he had died and I had not had the courage to have an honest conversation with him about my newfound faith, the ways I still honored my Baptist upbringing, and my deep love and admiration for him.

So it was with great fear and trembling that I sat in the little office in the Goldendale Baptist church, where my dad had done so much of his ministry, listening to the funeral service out in the sanctuary through the speakers my dad had wired up long ago to provide mamas with babies a place to hear the sermon.

But there was laughter---a lot of it---coming through the speakers. There were stories of times I didn’t know about, times when he had said or done something funny, something playful, something jokingly. And those stories made me think of the times I’d shared with him, the times when we’d made a car trip together and stopped at special places along the route, just because I wanted to, or the sweet things he said, calling me “Pal” one treasured day, the standard punchlines to the stories about his chronically tubby belly---“the doctor told me to watch my weight, he’d say, so I got it out where I could keep an eye on it.”

Or “I only like two kinds of pie----hot pie and cold pie”. The very slightly risqué puns that would sneak out occasionally, causing my mother to say, “oh, Merritt!” with a wry smile.

My dad was a funny man and humor was a very important piece of his life. He also had a very serious side; he was committed to his ministry and to his congregants. Nevertheless he managed to eat all his meals with us, his family, during the time I was growing up, even though he grumbled about my mother’s efforts to feed him more vegetables and fewer hunks of fatty meat.

In his earlier days, he’d been skinny as a rail, the kind of guy about whom some wag might say “he’s so thin that if he stood sideways and stuck out his tongue, he’d look like a zipper”. But as he aged, he gained a good deal of weight and, at 6’6” and almost 300 pounds, he was an imposing figure, a giant with a big goofy smile and an enormous heart.

As we lowered his coffin into the ground at the small Goldendale cemetery, with the view of Mt. Adams in the background, my brother and I hugged each other and laughed and cried together at the sweet memories and the great loss we were experiencing at the same time.

Like many of you, I suspect, I both laughed and cried during the memorial service last fall for our dear Baird Bardarson, as family members and friends told stories we’d never heard about Baird’s life—serious stories and side-splitting stories, illustrating so well the many facets of this beloved human life. In death, as in life, stories illuminate character and resilience, revealing the truths of human living.

Laughter is the flip side of tears; they are so close that they are nearly interchangeable. We laugh so as not to cry; we cry when we have ceased to laugh.

This human ability to laugh is called a sense of humor. It doesn’t always mean that we’re full of jokes, though some of us are better jokesters than others. It doesn’t mean we have a higher tolerance for awful puns, though a good pun is found too hard. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to ignore the sorrow and turn a tragedy into a Saturday Night Live skit, though black humor will always have a place in tragic situations.

In my Clinical Pastoral Education class in seminary, I was a chaplain intern at a small family hospital north of Denver. This was a placement in which I met daily with other interns, walked the halls of St. Anthony North visiting patients, praying with them and their families, meeting with doctors, nurses, and other staff members to discuss the progress of seriously ill or injured patients.

During these weeks of internship, I experienced a hospital environment in a deeper way, becoming aware of the desperate situations medical personnel encountered daily and the ways they had to distance themselves slightly from tragedy, in order to maintain perspective on the medical issues before them.

I heard snatches of black humor that only cropped up behind closed doors, far from patients and their families, expressions that masked their sorrow at an unavoidable loss of life and released their tension for awhile. To an outsider, humor might seem callous at this time, if not disrespectful; to a person experiencing the grief of losing a patient he or she has cared for, humor can be a way of lowering tension and making it possible to go on to the next situation that demands their full attention.

There is, as it says in Ecclesiastes, for “everything, a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to reap; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to destroy and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war----and a time for peace.”

A strong sense of humor offers resilience, a steadiness, and a profound faith in possibility. In a time of grief, it is a recognition that life has its joys and sorrows and that they are closely related, even intertwined. A person with the gift of humor can give others the gift of hope, hope that there is something good beyond the grief.

About the same time I’d felt my call to the ministry, I also ended a romantic relationship with a man who had become very dear to me. After that breakup and in addition to the other changes in my life, I’d bought a big old camping van and intended to use it to travel between Colorado and Washington to visit my family and continue the camping expeditions that I would no longer be taking with my friend.

Not long after I bought the van, my friend came by to take a look at it. This behemoth of a vehicle was parked out front of my house and I proudly flung open its bay doors to let him check it out. I think I secretly hoped he would fall madly in love with the van---and me, once again, and we would drive off into the sunset with none of the problems inherent in my choices to go into the ministry, move back to the Pacific Northwest, and change my entire life.

He ducked down and knelt on the van’s floor, opened the little ice box, tested the faucet in the little sink, looked at the storage space, jiggled the controls on the tiny stove, all on his knees, and finally, turning to me, said, “Look, you can cook and pray at the same time…”

I have remembered that statement for all these years, for I felt in that moment that the reality of our situation had been acknowledged, had been accepted, and it was not really the end of the world, for either of us. I cooked and prayed for several years in that big old blue Dodge van, which I named Amazing Gracie, for the many gifts she gave me, including that moment of clarity.

There are lots of ways that humor can be toxic. We think of the jeers and snide remarks made by bullies of many stripes----young kids whose upbringing has not included teachings about kindness, politicians who think it’s funny to insult and deride their opponents, making fun of their differences in cruel and false ways, men and women joking about a friend’s or mate’s obesity, gender, appearance, personality, or any number of qualities they consider inferior.

What is toxic humor?

Psychologist Maximillian Wachtel of Denver's Cherry Creek Psychology, defines it as "making fun of others, teasing, making fun of (somebody) behind his (her) back…. It's humor with a negative aspect, disguising anger as humor." He considers toxic humor aggressive, delivered by a "'humorist' either expressing anger or vying for power and control in (a situation). It lowers morale… and creates an atmosphere that feels unsafe. It can hinder (work) productivity as well."

Pat Gray, president of Prevoyance Group in Harrison, N.Y. agrees that this type of humor is negative, attacking someone or something "for something they can't really change, such as being too old or too young, hitting below the belt."

Such toxic humor would include, in my opinion, racial jokes, so-called humorous sexual remarks made by a person in power, jokes about being drunk, stoned, or otherwise inebriated, snide or sarcastic remarks directed toward a person’s gender, sexual orientation, appearance, intelligence, age, race, or any other innate characteristic. We might consider whether jokes about other religions are toxic, as well.

But humor can be tricky. Sometimes we ourselves are unable to see humor in a situation, often because we are in pain about something else, and we are offended by a remark or assumption that feels unkind when no unkindness was intended. We are unable to laugh something off because we don’t realize that it was not intended to be hurtful.

I used to see this kind of angry response in a certain set of friends, who often jumped quickly to the conclusion that someone was insulting them and could unleash all kinds of conflict in the group over a misinterpreted remark or opinion. Super high intelligence does not necessarily equate to discernment about peaceful and helpful responses!

So a sense of humor in others demands something of ourselves. Our own ability to laugh must be kept in shape, so that we do not misinterpret the casual remarks or assumptions of others. And, of course, this is easier at some points in our lives than at other times.

Which leads us to another aspect of a sense of humor and how it relates to our spiritual and religious lives, especially our life together in community.

Our worship theme this month of January is “humor as a source of spiritual inspiration” and I have chosen, rather than to tell a bunch of Unitarian jokes----of which there are thousands, many of which you have already heard----, I have chosen to look at how a sense of humor can have both a positive and a negative side, to see how it can enhance our life together in community and our individual lives out in the world, to connect it to our religious ideals and look at how we might develop a sense of humor in ourselves that helps us to be resilient, realistic, and reverent.

Let’s look at these three characteristics and how they are connected with a sense of humor in ourselves.

Resilient, hmmmm. This may be true of you too, but sometimes I’m not very resilient because I am under a lot of stress, or I’m not feeling up to par, or I have worries about family members or friends that keep me from being my normal mostly-cheerful self.

It is at these times that Dame Julian’s mantra (all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well), that her mantra can be helpful. I can remember then, when I hear a remark or suggestion or critique that feels hurtful, that I can choose to assume good intentions on the part of the person who has made the remark. That person may have no idea that her remark has been painful for me; if I respond cuttingly, I hurt her too and that helps no one. Better I should remind myself that there is a bigger picture than the one that contains just my image----and laugh because I will be able to see it later. Not now, but later. So, “assume good intentions, give it time, check it out, be kind” might be a good strategy for myself when I’m not very resilient.

I sometimes have trouble, too, with the idea of being realistic! Do you? I think, sometimes, “o my gosh, I’ve turned into my mother!”, especially when I hear the tone of my voice when I tell my son how to raise his teenage daughter. When I look in the mirror and see my mother’s features reflected in my own, I have to laugh! She changed so much over her lifetime----and so have I. I’m not the same person I was in the past. I have new abilities and I have let go of old abilities. Who am I now and what are my current circumstances?

Jean McIntosh alerted me to a wonderful book, recently, entitled “TheThird Chapter” by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, in which the author talks about the period of our lives between adult maturity (say, 50 years of age) and so-called, “old age”, 75 or older. She notes that millions of this generation---the generation of many of us here, as a matter of fact---have responded to retirement and changing abilities by reinventing themselves, picking up the long-postponed dreams of youth and refining them into a new passion.

I suspect many of us here have done that; I know that becoming a singer in a band is for me an outgrowth of a dream I had decades ago----of being a torch singer in a red satin dress reclining on a grand piano somewhere. Now I’m a singer in an American roots band, with red cowboy boots and bluejeans and loving it, feeling as though a longheld dream has become reality.

So if there’s a wise word or two to accompany the need for being realistic about the present, it might be “take stock, find a way to live an old dream, and try it out”.

And what about reverent? How do humor and a light-hearted approach to life contribute to our spiritual life, our reverence for life? A colleague, Rev. David Robins has written this:

“Humor and spirituality share many common themes. Both are deeply personal, and can alter perspective. Both are hopeful, and both have an appreciation for paradox. Both are creative. Both help in letting go, and both offer some grace, often in difficult situations.

“Spirituality and humor are both therapeutic when they stimulate an expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations. Humor and spirituality support healing, and coping….Humor relieves the stress of tense meetings and tense moments….

“Humor can bring people together. It distracts for a moment and breathes new life into people and situations, allowing us to cross a threshold into common endeavor.”

When we are able to laugh together, we celebrate and strengthen the bonds of our community. We are able to set aside temporarily our differences, experience a moment of common hope and friendship, and knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web which holds us together.

The poet Langston Hughes was a pretty serious guy and underwent a great deal of tragedy and frustration in his life as an early African American writer. But he has these words for us, as his approach to reverence:

I been scared and battered.
Snow has frizz me, Sun has baked me,
Looks like between ’em they done tried to make me
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’---
But I don’t care! I’m still here!

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our ability to laugh at life’s absurdities and challenges, while responding to them with resilience, realism, and reverence, is an inborn characteristic that we can develop in ourselves. May we strive to live in a light-hearted way, not ignoring problems but responding to them with courage and a hopeful heart. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Joel said...

I think, sometimes, “o my gosh, I’ve turned into my mother!”, especially when I hear the tone of my voice when I tell my son how to raise his teenage daughter.

For what it's worth, I sometimes sound like your mother, too, especially with little children.

ms. kitty said...

Especially when she'd say, "You ornery whelp! I'm going to rip off your leg and beat you over the head with the bloody stump!" Right?

Mile High Pixie said...

Lawd, Rev Kit, the thought of laughter at a parent's funeral reminded me of my own dad's passing (which was 14 years ago as of 1/16/11). After the funeral, I heard people laughing in our living room. I went in and found out that one of the funeral home employees was a friend of my stepbrother's, and the young man had been plying my stepbrother for my phone number. The very notion of trying to pick up the daughter of the deceased at the funeral made us all howl with laughter, and we know Daddy would have found it rednecky and hilarious.

I often wonder how humor and enlightenment go together. I'm fearful at times that by becoming more spiritual or peaceful that I lose the ability to be funny, tell jokes, and generally laugh. If I become really enlightened and peaceful and good at meditating, will fart jokes cease to be funny?

I recall when taking a stand-up class many years ago that self-effacing humor is particularly effective because some part of us likes to laugh at others. I'd like to think that the reason we like laughing at others is because some part of us identifies with others' failings. When someone jokes about how lazy they are or how much they drink, we laugh because part of us goes, "Oh, thank God, I do those things sometimes too." As Billy Joel said, "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / The sinners are much more fun."

ms. kitty said...

Keep on with the fart jokes, Pixie, and don't worry about it. I suspect Jesus told a few in his time as well. What I've found interesting is that ministers aren't necessarily supposed to be funny, but my congregation loves it when I am. They liked this sermon and they liked the one today offered by a guest speaker, which was also about humor and spirituality.

Jean said...

Thanks, Kit, for a wonderful read. I especially appreciate your humor, and candor, about life issues that are most often both serious and humorous. I'm so happy that Sarah's book supported your emerging passions!