I recall listening to Polish friends banter in their own language. Although I didn’t understand what they were saying, I found myself smiling.
When one of them asked why I was laughing and whether I understood what they were saying, I simply said, “No, but you laugh the same in Polish.” To which he laughed even harder.
Humour is beautiful and it really does sound the same no matter what language we speak. It breaks down the walls that divide us and brings us together. It builds empathy and understanding. It’s one of the most amazing and enriching aspects of being human.
There’s a lot we don’t know about laughter. But preliminary research shows it has tremendous health benefits. It reduces stress, causes the release of positive endorphins, promotes healing and is good for our hearts. Even a smile has a positive impact.
Having worked in several cultures through the years, I’ve noticed different attitudes toward smiling and laughter. I tend to be a very happy person, always looking for something to laugh about. Living in the West, I’m told from time to time that I need to be more sensitive of the feelings of others and to stop fooling around. When I lived in Africa, however, I didn’t find this social standard to be as prevalent.
In Africa, I worked at a home for street children. Young people who had nothing but the clothes they were wearing came to us. I found that if I greeted a child by saying “seka,” meaning “smile” or “laugh” in Lingala, I would get the most beautiful grin in return. It created a positive connection between us and it fit with our social context. Maybe the children realized that having food to eat, a roof over their heads and people who cared about them was reason enough to smile.
Humans are meant to feel a full gamut of emotions. There’s a time to feel upset and we’re just beginning to understand how to deal with negative emotions. The musical genre of the blues is all about sadness. What’s fascinating, however, is that playing the blues makes us feel better.
There’s something powerful about mindfully embracing the bad things that happen in life. We realize that we are stronger than they are and although they may contain valuable lessons for us, the sun also rises.
Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl tells us, “I never would have made it if I could not have laughed. It lifted me momentarily out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable.”
Indeed, Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning is rife with stories of concentration camp inmates laughing about topics that others may find morose. They would joke about how after surviving on watery soup, they would eat at banquets years after their release and still ask the server bring them soup “from the bottom (of the pot).” Even the realization that the train that was carrying them from one camp to another was leaving them at a work camp and not at a death camp drew smiles, laughter and cheers from inmates.
Laughter connects us as people. British musician Elvis Costello once sang, “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?” (in a song written by Nick Lowe).
But maybe that’s the key. Humour could well be the path to developing care and compassion for our neighbours, and building a more peaceful and joyful world.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.