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The Hope of Laughter

Spirituality Column #13

May 30, 1996

The night in 1984 when they told me I had eight months to live, I gathered friends around me and watched "I Love Lucy" re-runs. We must have watched the "Vitameatavegamin" episode at least three times. Over and over, we played the part where Lucy gets drunk on the medicine, and we laughed more and more hysterically each time.

Laughing at Lucy was partially an escape from reality that night. She was a familiar, comfortable companion. Through her various TV shows, I had known her all my life. She was a safe haven of laughter at every point in my life when I felt vulnerable. And now, on that night of the most indescribable emotional pain, I derived a tremendous comfort from the familiar fun she presented with Ricky and Ethel and Fred.

And laughing that night also gave me my first taste of hope. The fact that I could feel such joy watching Lucy's antics demonstrated to me that life wasn't quite over, that joy was still possible, that life was still good.

One of the first books I read after my diagnosis (there was nothing written about living with AIDS back then) was Norman Cousins' Anatomy of an Illness, in which Cousins describes his recovery, through laughter, from an illness which was supposed to have killed him. He made it a discipline to enjoy hearty belly laughter watching Marx Brothers movies several times a day. He inspired me to do this myself, using familiar television comedies like "I Love Lucy".

And so every day, I have made a point of starting and ending each day with Lucy and laughter. I found that when I was laughing, I wasn't depressed! I wasn't scared! I managed to forget my anxieties for awhile! I always felt relief from the incredible stress of trying to sort out my life with AIDS and cancer. And no matter how many blood tests or biopsies or bureaucrats I had to deal with, I always had that laughter to look forward to at the end of the day. It really kept me going. As one important component of my healing program, I'm sure it had something to do with my cancers going into remission, and my recovery from AIDS.

I don't know how laughter works as a healing tool, but I've seen it work for myself and others. Of course, laughter offers no guarantees. But it offers a lot of fun and joy in the face of the amazingly difficult challenges of living with HIV and AIDS.

I'm told that there is actually a physiological reason that laughter has a positive impact on health: like exercise, good, hearty laughter releases endorphins, which elevate the mood and produce a healing effect. "Reader's Digest" has known this for years: laughter really is great medicine!

Some people might object that laughter is not really "spiritual", and has no place in this column about AIDS and faith. But I believe that God has a great sense of humor! And sometimes we need a sense of humor to maintain our faith. There is evidence of that throughout the Bible, if you read it with the right lenses. Abraham laughs when God tells him Sarah will have a baby (Genesis 17: 15 - 17). Sarah laughs too when God tells her the same news (Genesis 18: 10 - 15.) God asks why Sarah is laughing, and when Sarah denies it, God says, "Yes you did laugh!" God doesn't punish her for laughing. God blesses her. And I'm sure there was a twinkle in the divine eye when it happened! God knew how funny it was, and hence how striking and memorable, that these two senior citizens would soon be dealing with midnight feedings and changings.

When Sarah gives thanks for the miracle, she says, "God has given me laughter, and everyone who hears about it will laugh with me." (Genesis 21:6) Laughter is a gift from God... evidence of God's most amazing grace.

The Apostle Paul was well aware of God's sense of humor as well. In I Corinthians 1: 21 - 27, Paul recognizes that it must seem like foolishness to worship a Messiah who was crucified. But God uses foolishness to shame the wise. What seems foolish to people of this world is wisdom to God.

And that's what comedy is all about: turning things upside down, standing things on end, and surprising the world with joy, even in tragedy. Jesus was crucified and dead, but God had one more surprise: Resurrection! Easter! Life beyond death! OK, it's not quite like Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory, but the surprise, the joy, the renewal of life, is the same as the heartiest belly laugh. Life can sure knock us down, but with God in our life, we can get back up, dust ourselves off, and jauntily twirl our canes as we saunter into the sunset. Blessed are they who get the joke.

I was blessed with the opportunity to thank Lucy after I recovered from cancer and AIDS. I was seated behind her at an AIDS benefit in which her daughter was performing. At the intermission, I approached her, and said, "Lucy, I want to thank you for helping me laugh my way through AIDS."

Taking my hand, she replied in her gravelly voice, "Oh, you got that idea from Norman Cousins."

I said, "Yes, but you're the one who made me laugh!"

"Well, aren't you sweet. These fellows were just telling me the same thing." And she introduced me to the other persons with AIDS who were gathered around her. Within a few months, Lucy herself died. But I had the chance to thank her. Thinking about that encounter still brings healing to my soul.

Whatever or whoever makes you laugh, make sure you get a good, hearty belly laugh several times a day! Take a stand-up comedy workshop! Watch cartoons or comedies! Find the humor in your life with AIDS! Find a way to laugh, and that will help the healing process.

Find a way to laugh, and that will bring you joy, the kind of joy that comes from God. And that will give you hope.

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