Finding laughter when even the birds won't sing
Some thoughts on Ukraine, flooding, Stephen Colbert and hope
It had been less than a year since the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. The bloodiest and most destructive war in human history had ended with a ghastly display of power and dark ingenuity. After six excruciating years, the rebuilding of a new world would take decades to erase and replace the memory of the gas chambers, levelled cities and a lost generation of men. A sense of sorrow, shame, optimism, fatigue and wilful forgetfulness pervaded most nations. Living a normal and quiet life probably seemed detached, elusive, trivial and yet imperative after all that had happened.
This is what was fought for after all.
For life in Hilo, Hawaii, you couldn’t imagine a more serene and picturesque setting for another tragedy to unfold. On April 1, 1946, an 8.6-magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Aleutian Islands triggered a devastating Tsunami felt in Alaska, California, and on the pristine beaches of Hawaii. ‘The April Fools Tsunami’ left around 170 people dead, plenty more injured and $26 million worth of damage (not adjusted to today’s equivalent). Waves reached as high as 50 metres, and utterly pummelled the unsuspecting residents and townspeople.
While not the most fatal of history’s worst natural disasters, it was still symbolic. A day meant for laughter and harmless fun was anything but when the world seemed so grim. And still seems so grim now. What do we do, when one thing after another leaves us in a perpetual state of survival mode?
If only the elements could cancel each other out rather than compete each year for our dread, fear and terror of summer.
These ‘once-in-a-generation’ events have kept coming in rapid succession over the past six years or so, with the past few weeks being particularly dispiriting. We can now add the very real threat of nuclear war to the escalating battle of ideology. Free and open societies aren’t simply being challenged on the internet and in the legislative chambers, but are now being openly attacked, with aggressors bursting into homes, schools, hospitals and churches, as the tanks roll in to clean up whatever the bombs haven’t destroyed already.
The visual and visceral evidence of climate change continues to mount, as politicians and corporations vigorously shun their responsibilities, lying down before the world’s worst polluters. The record downpours and flooding on the east coast of Australia can’t wash away the recent memory of orange skies and towering tornados of flames, which are likely to be back soon in greater force. If only the elements could cancel each other out rather than compete each year for our dread, fear and terror of summer.
If that’s not enough, we’ve been herding black cats and lucked out with a once-in-a-century pandemic that is continuing to linger, continuing to kill people, and likely to mutate. So often it feels as if the joke is on us and we’re the fools for trying, or for caring, to make the world better.
And yet this is no way to live. Having the weight of this convulsing world on our shoulders will eventually drag us into the abyss if we don’t have an escape hatch.
One of the memorable digressions in philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, is where he mentions the role of the carnival in medieval times. In heavily hierarchical societies, carnivals served as both a release valve and a peculiar expression of egalitarianism that eluded most social structures in their quotidian existence.
“These were periods in which the ordinary order of things was inverted, or ‘the world turned upside down’.” he writes. “For a while there was a ludic interval, in which people played out a condition of reversal of the usual order. Boys wore the mitre, or fools were made kings for a day; what was ordinarily revered was mocked, people permitted themselves various forms of licence … The weight of virtue and good order was so heavy, and so much steam built up under this suppression of instinct, that there had to be periodic blow-outs if the whole system were not to fly apart.” (p45-46)
Having the weight of this convulsing world on our shoulders will eventually drag us into the abyss if we don’t have an escape hatch.
The origins of these festivals, though religious in nature, are unclear as is April Fools’ day itself. But what is clear is that laughter and absurdity played a cathartic role in somewhat inescapable, unpredictable and indisputably oppressive circumstances.
Fast forward to our day and the role of laughter can have similar qualities for enduring through times of adversity. American comedian Stephen Colbert was recently asked how his faith and comedy overlap. He first responded with his trademark wit, added how the movie Belfast was deeply resonant with him, before giving a stunningly beautiful response:
“I’ve always connected love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people, and that death is not defeat. [Belfast is] funny and it’s sad, and it’s funny about being sad, in the same way that sadness is like a little bit of an emotional death, but not a defeat if you can find a way to laugh about it, because that laughter keeps you from having fear of it, and fear is the thing that keeps you from turning to evil devices to save you from the sadness.” he said.
“So, if there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that no matter what happens, you are never defeated. You must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”
The Ukrainians are offering a glimpse of something profound, bright and desirable in the toughest of circumstances.
It’s fitting that the only place to have declared April Fools’ day a public holiday is in Ukraine of all places, and it’s incredible to hear the stories coming out during their time of desperation. Whether it’s Ukrainian tax gags or a savage meme game, the resolve, courage and sense of humour of these people continue to amaze and inspire as we get real-time updates in our social media feeds. While it’s hard to know exactly what’s true and what’s accurate from a news standpoint, the Ukrainians are offering a glimpse of something profound, bright and desirable in the toughest of circumstances.
Laughing through the pain becomes a choice to not give in to the fear, and despair that can so easily break us. And it becomes the best form of transmissible therapy, as hope stubbornly fends off the darkness, and lights up others in the pit with you.
We need not feel guilty when the hard days and brutal headlines call for our personal release valves. The gifts and practitioners of comedy, satire and parody are not indulgent but indispensable. Tuning into our favourite stand-up, sit-com or portable pod-based entertainment are not dead-time, but the very things that can help us feel alive when circumstances beg to differ.
So, do the things that bring the chortles, but do them together too. The date nights, the office pranks, Friday night poker with the boys, Saturday family movie with the kids, banter around the bonfire with friends. These can all be occasions to stand for and celebrate the flipside of sorrow.
Laughing through the pain becomes a choice to not give in to the fear, and despair that can so easily break us.
Some ancient wisdom opines that ‘A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones’ (The book of Proverbs 17:22).
One of the greatest things about Christianity, in my opinion, is that even when things seem at their lowest ebb, God can still flip the script and pull out the victory when crushing defeat seems inevitable. Misery and despair can be erased, replaced and engulfed by God’s incessant love and tender voice. It’s what some of these carnivals were seemingly about.
The Cross of Christ is described as ‘foolishness to the world, yet the power of God for salvation to those who believe’. It’s a unique and overwhelming kind of hope that even death can’t intimidate. The resurrection is of course the divine pressure valve, directing our hope beyond the ephemeral and transient, and into the eternal banquet. Laughter, and good cheer become anticipatory experiences, rather than a fleeting emotional manicure.
Misery and despair can be erased, replaced and engulfed by God’s incessant love and tender voice.
For Christians there’ll always be an occasion for optimism and courage to face another day. To conjure the joke that moves the despondent. To stare down the face of evil. To rebuild from the ruins. To spread cheer to the downtrodden. To not give the bullies, the warmongers and the morally vacuous the satisfaction they crave.
Evil, despair, and turmoil have their own kind of special dark power, but the most powerful thing in the world is undoubtedly Hope. That precious commodity worth fighting for, uniting around, and celebrating together. It can turn the world upside down in the most delightfully astonishing ways, and at the same time make fools of us for doubting that better days are not only possible, but guaranteed in light of eternity.
This article was first published on Third Space
Aaron Johnstone works for the Hobart Team of City Bible Forum