I have always felt that laughter – not to be trite – IS the best medicine. Knowing plenty of people who have no senses of humor – as is my lot – I find to be a depressing commentary on the human condition. Some in my orbit never crack a smile, much less laugh.
And the downside: There are many folks out there who are only happy when they can get the better of another person. It is not laughter they seek, but domination and control. These are the hyper-critical characters that walk the earth only to find fault in others. A good psychiatrist – and they ARE at a premium – will tell you that the toxicity with which these people conduct their lives exists because without it, they somehow would feel diminished. Their narcissism combined with being able to laugh or criticize someone who is demonstrably and unequivocally beneath them, or so they think, are rampant pieces of today’s world. I walk away from this brief excursus with the sure knowledge that laughter (when not at another’s expense) is good and grousing, finding fault, engaging in belittling criticism in the name of humor – are all bad.
A true story from a visit last week to an ICU: A woman in her late 70’s reclines before me, hooked up to all of the appropriate intensive care machinery. She stirs when I enter the cubicle and I introduce myself. Like so many, she is a part of the brigade of “been there and done that” up north when the children were small. They were affiliated with a congregation on Long Island through the last Bar Mitzvah, then they decommissioned their communal Jewish lives (I have lived here for over eighteen years and never have I met this woman) and did I know Rabbi Cohen? It is axiomatic within the lay community that every Rabbi MUST know every other Rabbi, especially one as beloved as Rabbi Cohen (of whom on Long Island alone there might be scores bearing that name). What follows in an approximation of the conversation I had at her bedside; any lapses or lacunae should be addressed to my neurologist:
“I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances. Is there anything within my purview that I can do for you?” You will note my careful phrasing. When I was in the hospital I was visited by the chaplain (a Baptist minister) who asked if “there was anything” he could do for me. I looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Get me the hell out of here.” Hence, my chariness when it comes to language.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Rabbi, I’m not a very religious person. My late husband was more attached to our tradition that I was – and I think he mostly was just going through the motions. I know I’m not getting out of here. If I do, it will be a one-way trip to hospice.”
“This is life’s rhythm, the inescapable reality we will all face.”
“I know, I know it all too well.”
“Do you have family?”
“They are all up north, but I expect the parade to begin tomorrow or the next day. We are not a particularly close family or a religious one.”
“Yet you asked to see a Rabbi. Why?”
“Because I heard you were funny and I wanted to laugh once before the end.”
Yes, I do have an understated reputation for humor, most of it appropriate to my profession and status. I think my finest moment of repeatable wit came when I was serving as a Rabbi in a particularly large congregation. A member was unrelenting about something – I do not remember what – and I finally told him, “Look, this synagogue has 1,400 members, but really closer to 5,000 people when you throw in kids and other family. Practically speaking, that means that each person is entitled to about 30 minutes of my time per year.”
“So, your time is up,” I replied. That made the rounds for about six months, funny to some, scandalously unacceptable to others, but THE topic of conversation for many who should have known better. A piece of my response came from the determination I made early in my career: serious illness and death were at one vibration level; everything else occupied a different sort of space. So when Mrs. Cohen (no relation to Rabbi Cohen) would show up, arms akimbo and hair on fire because of her daughter’s bat mitzvah lesson, my tendency – God help me – was to tune most of it out and to find parts of what she was acting out just plain funny. I never let on – that would have been suicidal – but it remained a joke between me and me. This was different. The woman before me met the criteria for a high ranking in my hierarchy of human and religious priorities. She was seriously ill and probably dying – and – she wanted me to make her laugh. I am pretty decent with the spontaneous quip or the insertion of humor into a sermon to produce laughter, less so in the category of joke-telling (at least ones suitable to this time and place).
I will not reveal the story I told her, but I will tell you that she laughed. She laughed so hard that tears streamed down her cheeks, though we both knew that some of those tears were more about “the last laugh” than about humor or my comedic styling. The palliative value of laughter is well established, even when the circumstances are far from the best. We do not make light about the seriousness of one’s end of days, but we do not give in completely to the morose. Laughter is such a unique gift; to surrender it would be a terrible deprivation and denial of our humanity. A poet once wrote: Life is the laughter of a gracious God. Death is but the echo of that laughter rippling off into eternity. I am inclined to agree.