Not to long ago, Avila held its annual student activity fair and picnic on our central quad. The day was clear and sunny, and the temperature just right for eating outdoors.
The activity fair has always been a nice opportunity to meet new students. That day, a couple first-year students sat next to me for lunch. During our conversation, it came up that I had spent many years living and working in Costa Rica before returning to Kansas City to accept my current position at Avila. One of the students asked me, “What do you miss the most about Costa Rica?”
I haven’t been asked this question in a long time, but my answer was automatic: “The people.”
Then I added: “They are so friendly and generous.”
After a little more thought, I finished with: “They laugh more than we do.”
I’d never really thought about this before: That what I miss most about Costa Rica is the laughter.
I went on to explain to the students that Costa Ricans are just as passionate and concerned as we are about all the same serious things: politics, social justice, peace, economic prosperity, and so forth. But they don’t seem to take themselves quite as seriously as we do, and sometimes I think that’s a healthier way of living.
That conversation came back to me a few days later, when I was sharing an inside joke with a colleague on campus. It struck me that as much as I sometimes feel a lack of laughter in American culture, the fact of the matter is we laugh a lot where I work, even when we’re feeling frustrated and annoyed. Actually, the more frustrated we get, the more we tend to laugh. Laughter breaks tension surrounding the challenges we face, allowing us to rest before getting back into the fray, and making us more effective – I think – at addressing the challenges at hand. This is one of the things I most enjoy about my workplace: the ability of my colleagues to laugh.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except for a vague sense that more laughter would probably do most of us a lot of good right now. And not just any laughter, but a shared laughter directed at ourselves and at the situations we face. This is a different quality of laughter than the laughter that arises from making fun of or cutting down the Other (something that I think Americans are very good at, but that on the whole, is not nearly as healthy).
At its best, laughter connects us to each other with a shared appreciation of just how ridiculous life can be, and how silly we can get when we tie ourselves up in knots over it. Laughter gives us a break from the toxic habit of taking ourselves to seriously. It won’t make our problems and worries go away, but it blunts the edges of our stress and helps us move forward with a positive energy that’s more likely to see us through difficult times.
So the next time you feel yourself getting too serious, try turning the situation upside down and making yourself laugh. Even better: Laugh with someone else.
The Hogwarts equivalent, of course, was to point your wand at whatever was worrying you and shout, “RIDDIKULUS!”
It worked for Harry Potter and friends. It can work for us, too.