Why I Love to Laugh

When I worked for Seeds Training, we used to do an activity with students called Strength Acknowledgments. Basically, it's an opportunity for a student to be recognized by his or her peers for positive actions, words, personality traits, or behaviors. Students, when receiving the positive feedback from their fellow students, are only allowed to say "thank you" in return. It can be hard or awkward to receive compliments, but it's important to hear them and not downplay them or shift the conversation toward complimenting the complimenter. It builds self-esteem, self-respect, and self-awareness, particularly important skills for young people. It also just makes people -- the givers and the receiver -- happy.

Today in my Creativity and Innovation class, we did a similar exercise in our four person teams that we have been working with since the beginning of the term (almost six weeks now). When it was my turn in the "spotlight," my team said some really kind things about me. One common theme that each person touched on was my sense of humor. They told me that I was good at using humor to make people feel at ease and to make otherwise challenging or frustrating situations fun. I appreciated hearing that a lot, and I was glad that my group saw it as a positive characteristic. I've learned, through trial and error, that it's difficult for me to work with people who take themselves very seriously -- if I can't laugh while doing something, I generally would prefer not to do it.

One theory I have about group cohesion (developed over the last ten years of attending summer leadership camp) is that if you want a group to bond quickly and intimately, start with humor. Almost immediately, I try to be sarcastic, self-deprecating, and even gently tease other people in the group. It makes people feel more comfortable with each other, and I think it makes people feel like they can be themselves. 

After each person in the group had received their feedback, one woman in my group, Paula, asked a single follow up question to each of us. "How do you feel hearing that?" She didn't mean "are you happy or sad?" She meant "does it match your own perception of yourself? Is it how you want to be viewed by the group?" We all used it as an opportunity to explain a little bit about why we are the way that we are. When she asked me, I paused for a moment. For some reason, the best answer I could think of was to tell a story.

The Bowman family has a long-held Memorial Day family tradition. Every Memorial Day weekend, my Dad, Uncle, little brother, and I visit the graves of our ancestors buried in and around Yamhill County, Oregon. We start the morning picking and purchasing flowers, and then we leave bouquets at the graves of distant and not-so-distant relatives. My grandma, Marm, was the matriarch of the tradition before she passed away.

It sounds like it might be a solemn or serious or even morbid tradition, but it isn't. It's actually one of my favorite days of the year. We spend the whole day cracking jokes, sharing memories, paying our respects, and enjoying each other's company -- usually culminating in a barbecue, where the jokes continue. 

I remember asking my Dad and uncle about this tradition of ours a couple years ago. Our family's approach to remembering those who have passed away is different than many other families. My uncle said something to the effect of, "If you can't enjoy it, what's the point?" To him, it's pretty obvious. 

When my grandma passed away, my family was devastated. She was incredibly healthy, extremely active in her community, and she never stopped moving (or baking). She was a kind and loving and generous person. We all expected her to be around for a few more decades. Pancreatic cancer, though, is a wicked disease, and it moved swiftly.

Some tears are still shed on Memorial Day. We miss her. But the memories that we talk about aren't sad. We talk about the time she "accidentally" broke my dad's Wooly Bully record while she was cleaning -- and then years later admitted it was on purpose because he wouldn't stop playing the damn thing. We talk about her favorite song to play on the piano, where she would intentionally play the most god-awful note at the worst time, and how it would always get a cringe and a laugh. We talk about her ever-growing collection of neighborhood cats that she could not help but to feed -- and not with cheap cat food, with high-quality cat food, the good stuff, and occasionally human food leftovers. We talk about the picture of Grandpa Ed with his arm around her while she cradles a role of tinfoil in her arms, probably about ready to wrap a few dozen pans of cinnamon rolls or loaves of french bread for every family member, neighbor, and former student within 100 miles -- that's Grandma, alright. No doubt, she would be pleased that we spend some time every year re-telling and remembering our favorite and funniest Marm stories.

I told a shorter version of that story to my team because I think it explains how my brain is wired. "Laughter," as Bill Clinton wrote, "is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain." I agree with him. Laughter, in my family, is not just reserved for happiness and celebrations. It's also for honoring and remembering, for dealing with stress, for welcoming, for bonding -- and for just about everything in between. And I'm grateful that it's part of my family DNA because my life is richer for it.