“Laughter doeth good like a medicine.” Prov. 17:22
There is a creation story in the lore of the Apache nation which tells about how the Creator delighted in making the first humans able to do so many things. They could see, hear, talk, run, dance, and create things with their hands. But the Creator was not fully satisfied. Something seemed to be lacking in these wonderful new beings. And so, the Creator went back to the creation mount and experimented with the different possibilities. At long last the one final thing that we needed become clear: it was laughter! When the first humans were given this essential new gift, they laughed and laughed. It was only on hearing this the the Creator said, “Now you are fit to be alive!” and he populated the earth with them.
It is a striking end to a story of creation within a Native American culture that the Creator pronounces humans “fit to live” because of the ability to laugh at the world around them. It is a cultural stereotype that we often portray the native cultures of our fair land as humorless aboriginals. The other day I was down in the Thousand Springs area and one of those brown and yellow history signs that so endemic to Idaho spoke of how the first settlers who came through on the Oregon Trail were amazed and delighted to engage the natives who seemed so happy and laughed quite often at themselves and their foibles. Despite the “stone-faced” image passed on to us by Hollywood and “wild west” lore, laughter was a much more common sound that war cries in tribal villages of yore.
In all of the great religious traditions, we find an apostle of laughter, the holy fool. In his book, Holy Fools, Edward Hays notes that each manifestation of spirituality in the world has a prophetic humorist, a trickster, or a clown figure. Among some of the southwestern Native tribes he was called Coyote. In Buddhism there is good old Pu’tai, a fat and jolly wandering Zen monk who carries a big bag of trash and pieces of junk on his back. Pu’tai enters a village and empties his bag of bits and pieces of junk—a cast off sandal or perhaps a broken bowl. With smiling solemnity, he announces, “What is this?” His clowning symbolized how much junk we carry around in life, though we often mistake it for something of value. Islam has its Holy Sufis. And like the desert mothers and fathers of early Christianity, the Jewish Hasidim have wonderful tales of comical rabbis who by their humor revealed the great wisdom of the Torah.
I am reminded over and over by the very beginning stories of our diverse spiritualities in the community of humanity that I must remember to laugh. At the Vatican, in the White House, at a school board meeting, a family crisis, or in the halls of a Medical Center, humor can awaken us to see what is really happening, can open our eyes to ingenious new ways of viewing our predicament, of seeing ourselves for who we are in this moment and even perhaps helping us in solving problems. The next time you find yourself faced with some “heavy” problem, allow the clown inside of you to come out—to help you get a new perspective—to help you laugh at yourself and “lighten up.”