Laughter is good for soul

My last column, “A Pill for Every Ill” elicited a lot of responses. Many said that it made them laugh, chuckle – even giggle. I intended that humor and wish I were clever enough to be more humorous in these columns. I’d like to make readers laugh as I prod them to think – as my conservative namesake P.J. O’Rourke does.

I wrote about laughter four years ago. “Laughter – for Body and Soul.” It’s in my book, “The Living Spirit.” There I wrote, laughter erupts out of humor, a surprising shift in perception, a sudden, jarring change that points out the incongruity of the situation – and the incongruities of life. Humor is the contrast of two very different ideas linked by a punch line, which makes us understand the absurdities of it all – and makes us laugh.

Laughter does many things. It creates a mood and brings people together. It’s contagious. The Danish-American comedian Victor Borge tells us, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” It draws folks together. We recognize our common human plight and laugh. “Laugh and the world laughs with you.”

Laughter also relaxes the body. In “Anatomy of an Illness,” Norman Cousins tells us, “Laughter is inner jogging.” A good belly laugh shakes us up. It improves the blood flow, eases our tensions, and boosts our endorphins. It’s a natural pain killer.

But there is also a spirituality to laughter. The world’s great religions recognize that. The Koran tells us, “He deserves paradise who makes his companions laugh.” The Yiddish proverb is better and more earthy: “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.” And the Christian Anne Lamott writes, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.” It’s the bubbling up of the goodness in our souls. It’s a sacrament, an outward sign of our inner goodness. This is true even when the jokes are raunchy.

Comedians get paid a lot to make folks laugh. They get lots of copy out of the foibles and follies of life, but what I’d like to highlight here is the spiritual aspect of laughter. Lamott is right on; it is “carbonated holiness.”

And the Yiddish proverb is insightful. Laughter is soap for the soul. It cleanses us of our illusions and our righteousness and – back to Lamott’s metaphor – bubbles up from our souls into our bodies.

Laughter makes us humble as we recognize that often the best we can do with life’s obstacles is to leap over them by recognizing their craziness – and laughing at them.

Leon Bloy, the French agnostic turned Christian wrote, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I know joy (great happiness) is not humor (the ability to see something as funny) and neither is laughter. But humor, laughter and joy are uniquely human experiences. They help make us human and the human imperfect situation is the gist for our laughter. They are not the same, but they are related.

Laughter has something for everyone. Whether you believe in a judgmental, micro-managing Guy Upstairs, in Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being, in Rudolf Otto’s Tremendous and Fascinating Mystery – or whether you believe in Nothing At All, believe in laughter.

It’s good for your soul.

Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga, New York. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website