Laughter can spark wisdom

Humour can exclude others but also bring us together

Grouchy old Qoholeth, the author of Ecclesiastes, was never a fun guy. So it should not have surprised me when I stumbled on this bit of his “wisdom”: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (Eccl 7.4) Well, may you have a good day too.

What could the old sourpuss have meant by this? The mirth of a laughing fool can be superficial, even evil when directed at the foibles of others. Laughter can lift us up and enable us to rejoice at the oddities of life. But mean-spirited laughter has a target which it tries to humiliate. Laughter at the expense of a scapegoat dehumanizes both the person targeted and especially the one doing the targeting.

Perhaps the bad effects of laughter can be muted through drama. Shakespeare wrote comedies; even his tragedies had humorous scenes. But anytime we laugh at dramatic characters, isn’t some real person the butt of our joke? The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote of complicity in laughter; the joke unites most members of a group in isolating or excluding someone who is not in on the joke. “One who is excluded from a group does not laugh with them.”

Why, I ask, are so many comedians sarcastic and unhappy?

Right now, I do not like the direction this article is taking. To me, laughter is liberating and is frequently not at another’s expense. Laughter is contagious. We laugh when those around us laugh, sometimes even when we don’t know what they are laughing about. Laughter is a bonding experience, one which can tone down the polarizations of our time. Babies laugh before they learn to speak. They may not get the joke, but they know it’s funny.

Laughter leads to good health. It dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow. Breathing nitric oxide can make you laugh, and when you laugh, you give off more nitric oxide. Gaiety can both boost the immune system and kill pain. Laughter can cut the tension in acrimonious situations.

A 1999 study found that people laugh an average of 18 times a day. The amount of daily incidents of laughter per person ranged from zero to 89. But what counts as a laugh? A titter, a guffaw or only a rollicking outburst? By any reckoning, I doubt if I hit 18 as a daily average. But Nora, my wife, surely does. She is a frequent laugher and, Qoholeth to the contrary, is no fool. In fact, she is often wise.

Share

Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist, contended that when suffering is overcome with laughter it provides “a happiness that humanity has not known so far.” He looked forward to laughter forming an alliance with wisdom, and he called philosophy “the gay science.” Still, Nietzsche was not far from Qoholeth. Laughter, he wrote, means taking a mischievous delight in the discomfort of another person, “but with a good conscience.”

Further, laughter for Nietzsche is opposed to thinking. “The lovely human beast always seems to lose its good spirits when it thinks well; it becomes ‘serious.’ And ‘where laughter is found, thinking does not amount to anything.’” Nietzsche and Qoholeth are not so far apart. It’s just that Nietzsche believed good spirits are superior to thinking while Qoholeth berated those good spirits as foolishness.

The Gospels, it should be noted, never record Jesus as laughing although he is occasionally laughed at. Being laughed at is humiliation. For his part, Jesus upholds those who mourn and weep. For example, “Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.” (Luke 6.25) Does mourning produce wisdom? Perhaps, because we mourn when something or someone important has been lost. It leads us to take stock of what is of true value and separate it from ephemeral pleasures.

British thinker Anthony Ludovici maintained that laughter was sinister and the use of humour an escape from responsibility and action. But then Ludovici deplored democracy and believed aristocracy was the best form of government. He also supported eugenics and wrote glowingly of Hitler. That’s what happens when you turn up your nose at laughter. You can end up backing the vilest political programs and support killing people who are unlike you.

Divine revelation

The Church suffers from a lack of laughter and an excess of moralizing. Too often, tense bodies and tightened faces have undermined the contention that happiness is based on a morally good life. When we take ourselves too seriously, the lightness and grace of God is replaced by the heaviness of ego.

G.K. Chesterton, as good a Catholic as any, once said, “A good joke is the closest thing we have to divine revelation.”

We need more wisdom, not less. But perhaps wisdom is a fruit of laughter, not its enemy. The heart of the wise is honed by mourning but elevated by mirth. The heart of the wise may be in the house of mourning or the house of mirth, but always it is in the house of grace. Take that, Qoholeth.

Subscriptions to Epiphany are free.