Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Are you laughing at me?

Winston Churchill, a personal hero of mine, said something to his officers that struck me as profound when I read it many years ago, though I don’t think I understood its important implication for me personally until today.

“Laugh a little and teach your men to laugh--get good humor under fire--war is a game that's played with a smile. If you can't smile, grin. If you can't grin, keep out of the way till you can.”

I’ve never been able to laugh at myself. “War” has always been serious business in my world, and this life has always been a battle to me, going back as far as I can remember.

Glen Moffett is my favorite cousin, against my better judgment. This guy can laugh, and he has always been able to make me (and everybody else) laugh, sometimes when I didn’t want to. He is actually closer to my dad’s age than to mine. Glen and my dad were like brothers growing up on Hollywood Road in Atlanta.

Glenn and his wife came over for dinner when I was about five or six, and when I finished my meal, I ducked under the table to pretend I was a lion to impress him. I growled and pawed at him. I must have been horribly distracting to the adult conversation going on above me. Though my parents were practiced at ignoring my obnoxiousness, my cousin Glen obviously wasn’t. He took his butter knife, scooped up a generous dab of soft butter, reached under the table, and smeared it on the nose of the king of the jungle. I came out from under the tablecloth defaced, mortified, crying huge tears at the cruelty and humiliation of it all. But I got no sympathy. My parents, Glen, and his beautiful wife, Linda, all burst into laughter. But not me. No, by God! I ran from the room, crawled into bed, and through unrelenting tears, planned my revenge.

The next time Glenn came, I hid behind the kitchen door with a stick of butter. My mom apprehended me before I could implement the plot. But I didn’t give up. I tried again and again. My life was, at least for a time, consumed with the seriousness of my favorite uncle’s malicious slight. I was driven by the humiliation of being laughed at. I was owned.

You can laugh now, if you want to. I’m laughing a little myself. But laughter for me, unlike tears, doesn’t come easy. I was born, apparently, with a sad little disease: The inability to laugh at myself. And now, at the age of fifty, I’m certain that I’ve robbed myself and those I love of so much joy. I really can’t even add up—and don’t want to—the pain in my relationships that could have been avoided if I’d had the capacity to take myself less seriously. My parents. My brothers and my sister. My dear friends. My children. The women that I’ve loved.

As I look back, when people have laughed at me, I’ve done one of two things. On some occasions I pretended to laugh along to keep from making a scene, but then disconnect from them emotionally. On most occasions, however, I made war. What I mean is that I employed my God-given intellect and eloquence to destroy the enemy, whoever it was. I made casualties, especially of those I loved. No one will laugh at me and live to tell it, I determined a long time ago. And it wasn’t Glen’s fault. It wasn’t anyone else’s fault. It was mine.

How did I suddenly learn this? What triggered this great insight today? Yes, I said today.

I’m in a mess right now, and, as usual, I take the messes I’m in very seriously. I feel as lost right now as I ever have, and I’ve been paddling like crazy to fix it. Exhausted, and unable to continue, more stripped of my dignity than I ever was standing there with butter on my nose, I lost heart. I collapsed, my dignity gone. I asked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to forgive my interruption from whatever it was that they were busy with, and I bared my soul, poured out my guts, utterly naked before the universe without a claim, without a hope, and without a prayer. (I know it’s funny. You can laugh freely. I don’t have any butter handy at the moment.)

I told God and myself exactly where it hurt. In my belly. My solar plexus. My diaphragm. And I said, “I don’t care how much it hurts to let you see this. I don’t care how much it hurts to face whatever this is that’s killing me. Pour your light on this pain. Show me what it is, no matter what it is. Touch it. Heal it. I’m ready.” I braced myself. (Stop laughing at me!)

Then, thank God, I realized bracing myself was the wrong thing to do. So I let go. I let my belly have its way. I surrendered myself to whatever hidden pain and tears were to come out. Believe me, I expected a world of hurt! It’s OK, I kept saying to myself. I know pain. I’ve come to expect pain, I told myself. The pain that this is going to cause can’t be worse than what I’m already feeling. So bring it on!

I totally let go of my belly, leaving it exposed and unprotected. The muscles in that spot twitched in an unusual way that scared me. Then they spasmed in a way that made me want to sit up and clutch them to make it stop. But I resisted the urge. I had to trust what was happening. I breathed and let go again. Whatever was happening got more intense. I had no idea, of course, what was happening or what to expect, but I was completely convinced that, whatever was about to happen was going to hurt really bad.

Then it happened. My diaphragm exploded in the most bewildering way imaginable. I busted out laughing! I kid you not. If I’m lying, I’m dying.

For a long time, I lay there belly-laughing like a nutcase. I couldn’t stop laughing at myself—me, laughing at me, imagine!—and I didn’t want to stop. Deep, funny, healing, hopeful laughter came from nowhere, came from the center of who I am, came from heaven. I don’t know. “I’m so confused,” I said, which made me laugh harder. It was so hilariously confounding. What a stunning surprise! Laughter became an unexpected yet most welcome visitor in my sea of seriousness.

Another one of my heroes and teachers, Edwin Friedman, said once, “The only antidote to seriousness is humor.” I liked that quote enough to memorize it fifteen years ago. I knew at the time that it was true circumstantially. But I didn’t know how true it was for me personally until today.

Winston Churchill, too, was more right than I consciously knew when I first read his stirring encouragement to his men. It’s funny that it never occurred to me, in all my years of accumulated wisdom (ha!), that laughing could be so important—essential even, spiritual even— and that something so wonderful and beautiful can come from the sheer, grace-filled release of knowing that I really can laugh out loud and unashamed at my stupid self.

So what’s next? I think I’ll try this out in public.