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How Serious is Laughter?

Ron Rolheiser, OMI - Mon, Jan 23rd 2023

In a homily, Karl Rahner once commented that in the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes a rather stunning statement. He says, ‘blessed are you who are now weeping, for you shall laugh’. Rahner suggests that Jesus is teaching that our final state of happiness in heaven will not just lift us out of our sadness and dry away our tears, it will bring us to laughter, to “an intoxication of joy.” Laughter is integral to the final ecstasy.

Further still, if laughter constitutes the final happiness in heaven, then it should follow that whenever we are laughing, we are on good terms with reality. Laughter, Rahner submits, is part of the eternal praise of God at the end of time.

However, this can be glib and misleading. Not all laughter gives God praise and not all laughter suggests that we are on good terms with reality. Laughter can also be cheap, glib, and wrong. The final joy of heaven is not always found at that place in a room where folks are cracking up with laughter.

There are many kinds of laughter and not all of them are healthy or godly. There is the laughter of drunkenness, of deadening your senses and jettisoning your moral compass and normal sensitivity. That kind of laughter will not be heard in some noisy little corner of heaven. Then there is the laughter of sarcasm, laughter that belittles others, that delights in others’ problems, and sees itself as superior. That too won’t be heard in heaven. Then there is the laughter that’s predicated on being insensitive and blind to the pain of others, that can enjoy itself even while Lazarus is starving just outside the door. The gospels are clear as to where that kind laughter lands us. As well, there is the laughter of pure superficiality, laughter that comes easy because it really doesn’t care about anything. Such laughter, though harmless, speaks of nothing.

However there are other kinds of laughter that speak of health and of God. There is the laughter of pure spontaneous energy, seen most clearly in the natural joyous bubbling over of the life- principle inside of a young person, like the delight you see in a toddler delighting in her first steps. This is the laughter of sheer delight, one that says, It’s great to be alive! When we laugh in this way, we are honoring God and thanking God for the gift of life and energy – since the best way to thank a gift-giver is to enjoy thoroughly the gift and delight in it.

This kind of laughter is most spontaneous is us when we are young and, sadly, generally becomes more difficult for us as the wounds, failures, pressures, and anxieties of adulthood begin to depress our spontaneous energies. We still laugh, but when we stop feeling spontaneous delight in our lives, when healthy laughter dries up, we tend to turn to unhealthy kinds of laughter to try to lift ourselves out of our depression. Hence, the loud, boisterous, cranked-up laughter we hear at our parties is often really only our attempt to keep depression at bay. See how happy I am!

Peter Berger once wrote that laughter is one of the proofs for the existence of God in that our capacity to laugh in any situation shows that, deep down, we are aware that no situation ultimately binds us. Our capacity to laugh in any situation, no matter how grave or threatening, shows that on some level we are aware that we transcend that situation. That’s why a prisoner being led to his execution might still joke with his executioner and why a dying person can still enjoy a bit of irony. Healthy laughter isn’t just godly. It manifests transcendence inside us.

But, not all laughter is born equal. There is a laughter that simply bespeaks superficiality, forced lightness, insensitivity, drunkenness, or a thinly disguised attempt to keep depression at bay. That is not the laughter of heaven. However, there is another kind of laughter, spoken of by Jesus in the Beatitudes, which is a laughter that simply delights in the joy of being alive and (in that delight) intuits its own transcendence. That kind of laughter is a key component in love and sanctity. It will be one of the “intoxications of joy” that we will feel in heaven.

If this is true, then the holiest person you know is not the humorless, dour, easily offended, over-pious person you deem as serious, deep, and spiritual whom you do not necessarily want as your table companion. The holiest person you know is probably the person you want beside you at table.

When I was a novice in religious life, our Assistant Novice Director, an over-serious, fearful man, frequently cautioned us against levity and humor, telling us, that there isn’t a single recorded incident in the gospels of Jesus laughing. Now deceased, I suspect the man is in heaven. I also suspect that from that vantage point, he would drop that caution.

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