“Laughing Jesus”, drawn by Willis Wheatley in 1973 for the United Church of Canada.

The Healing Power of Laughter

Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I wrote about my personal journey into and through depression. I discovered a powerful piece of music by Minneapolis composer Jake Runestad called “Please Stay”, an anthem of hope for people who struggle with this insidious disease.

In this time of pandemic, many people are struggling with the debilitating effects of depression. It’s a touch time as we face physical distancing, lack of touch, and when many of the things we had taken for granted have been taken away from us. What makes it even tougher is that we just don’t know when it will come to an end.

Mental health issues are real, and we need to pay attention. This week, I want to write about something that helped me deal with my depression.

As I began to heal with the incredible help of psych nurses and counsellors, I discovered that among other things, I had forgotten how to laugh. Literally. It’s hard to imagine, but I no longer knew how to laugh. For people who know me well, that comes as a shock, because these days I laugh a lot.

One of the contributing factors to my depression was that life had become intolerably heavy. Life was a burden, and I had lost any sense of joy in my life.

Part of my healing then was to learn how to laugh again. Consequently, laughter has become an important sign of health for me — good physical health, good emotional health, and good spiritual health. When you laugh, you are saying that you look at reality as life–giving and nourishing. Granted, there are moments of pain and grief. There always will be. But laughing is a choice which says that despite the sorrow that comes our way, life is filled with wonder and beauty and grace.

Even in the midst of COVID–19, I am grateful for opportunities to laugh. It’s not that I’m making light of this distressing time. Rather, I am finding moments of joy and lightness in the midst of the sorrow and heaviness. I am choosing to seek joy. There is still so much goodness in the world. In fact, this pandemic is bringing out some of the goodness in our neighbours and in ourselves as we reach out to help one another, and if that’s not a cause for joy, I don’t know what is.

A friend of mine reminded me of Norman Cousins, the American journalist who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a very painful condition which immobilized him, and at its worst made him nearly incapable of moving his jaw. Since he was a journalist, Cousins began to research why his body was reacting the way it was. He detailed his journey in his novel, “Anatomy of an Illness”.

As a result of his research, he prescribed himself two courses of action. The first was to take dangerously high levels of Vitamin C to repair his immune system. The second was to combat the unbearable pain, he prescribed “Marx Brothers movies, Candid Camera, and readings in American humour. He quickly discovered that only ten minutes of induced hearty laughter would produce about two hours of painless sleep.”

He called it “laughter therapy”, and after several years, he experienced little pain in day–to–day living and lived to the ripe old age of 75.

As poet e.e. cummings said, “The most wasted of days is one without laughter.” I am firmly convinced that laughter is a hallmark of a truly healthy and well–adjusted life. I’ve learned it in my own life. I’ve learned it from people like Norman Cousins. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and it’s especially invaluable in a time like the one in which we are living.

One of my favourite images is called “Laughing Jesus”, drawn by Willis Wheatley in 1973 for the United Church of Canada. Most images of Jesus tend to show him with a serious look, or a look of compassion. But this image was one of the very first in the whole history of Christian art to show Jesus laughing. Jesus is not just snickering politely. It’s a full–throated belly laugh. Jesus throws his head back and let’s ‘er rip.

Now, the Bible never explicitly says that Jesus laughed. It does say that Jesus wept—and we seem to want to hold on so tightly to that image. We describe Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, or in other ways which perpetuate the notion of a serious, humourless, pious Jesus.

But you can hardly imagine that Jesus never laughed. He went to weddings and ended up making more wine when it ran out; he told stories; he played with children; people were attracted to him. You’ve got to think he wasn’t really a gloomy Gus.

His parables also show us a man with a wicked sense of humour. Ever hear the one about a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle? In fact, some people thought he was having too much fun and called him a drunkard and a glutton. Does this sound like someone who wasn’t enjoying life? “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” he says in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.

I hold on to this image. I laugh regularly, for there is deep joy in all of life.

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity. They who have the faith have the fun.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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