Group laughing at humor

Holy Humor

Someone once complained to the Indian sage Ramakrishna that one of his disciples was drunk. “But don’t you think God is drunk?” asked Ramakrishna. “How else would the universe be so crazy if God wasn’t drunk?”

Maybe it’s a good idea to see the universe as crazy rather than tragic. It can take some of the edge off of watching the news, with its constant reminders of human folly and our penchant for self-destruction. But maybe you don’t like thinking of God as a tipsy creator of a crazy universe. How about a different metaphor: God as a cosmic comic and the universe as one big, wacky sitcom, with hapless heroes, long-suffering spouses, precocious brats, nutty neighbors, and plots in which scoundrels hatch selfish schemes and well-meaning characters make a mess of things while trying to do good? Sound like recent history?

The French philosopher Voltaire saw God as a comedian playing for an audience that’s too afraid to laugh. Perhaps we’re afraid of seeing the utter absurdity of it all because we think we’ll stop taking the suffering seriously enough to do something about it. But what if taking it too seriously makes the suffering worse? The power of laughter in the healing of physical illness has been well established. Maybe it’s equally healing for the heart and the soul. In my experience, a good sense of humor is as important on the spiritual path as a sturdy tent is on a camping trip. And cultivating a sense of the ridiculous is as vital as cultivating a sense of the sublime.

Buddha pointed out that human suffering arises from the incessant craving for pleasures and attainments whose satisfaction is fleeting. It could be argued that much of that craving arises from taking ourselves too damn seriously. A good laugh at our own expense is, if nothing else, a humbling reminder that our dramas are, from the cosmic perspective, “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

No holy book has been taken more seriously than the Koran, for example, and in that very scripture is the statement, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.” In that light, perhaps we can think of humor as a sacred offering and a good gag as a sacrament.

Laughter soothes the troubled spirit like a good massage soothes a worn-out body. Which is probably why so much of American humor has come from minority groups—principally Jews and African Americans—that struggled against bigotry and oppression. At the saddest moment in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when the Jews are being purged from their beloved ancestral village, a heartbroken man reflects that, “Our forefathers have been forced out of many, many places at a moment’s notice.”

Says Tevye, the main character, “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.”

Spiritually, humor can be even more than a healing balm. It can shed light on reality, puncture pomposity, deflate self-importance, and, at its most surprising, deliver a punch line that pierces the veil of illusion and illuminates a higher Truth. “Humor is a prelude to faith,” said the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” That’s why I open each issue of The New Yorker as if it were prayer book, to see what wisdom the cartoonists are offering that week. You never know when you might find a gem like the one with a guru speaking on “The Journey to Enlightenment” and a student in the audience asking, “Are we there yet?” Or the one with a man kneeling in prayer beside his bed, with a stunned look on his face, as a sign flashes near the ceiling: “Access denied.” If you don’t relate to those jokes, you haven’t been paying attention to your spiritual life.

So, consider it a spiritual practice to lighten up. Look for humor with the same zest you might bring to identifying your blessings. Give others the gift of laughter with the generosity you might bring to performing acts of charity and compassion. Listen to comedians as if they were sages and prophets. Read or watch comedies as if they were sacred texts.

As an offering to the altar of humor, here is a joke on the theme of gratitude. Fed up with the emptiness and clamor of modern life, Joe quits his job and enters a monastery where the monks are permitted to speak only two words a year. He settles into a barren room, dons a woolen robe and begins a new life of ascetic discipline. After one year, he is taken to see the abbot, who gestures for Joe to speak his two words. “Bed hard,” says Joe. The abbot nods and Joe is escorted back to his room.

Another year of rigorous silence passes. This time, Joe tells the abbot, “Food cold.” The abbot nods, and once again Joe returns to his room.

One more wordless year with the cold food and the hard bed, and Joe has had it. He tells the abbot, “I quit.”

“Good riddance,” says the abbot. “All you ever do is complain.”

Sitcoms wrap up their complicated plot twists and resolve the misunderstandings that created conflict among the characters—all in less than half an hour, with important lessons learned, rosy futures awaiting, and big hugs all around. Real life doesn’t work that neatly, but perhaps if we can find more humor in our wacky universe, we can, paradoxically, manage our serious troubles in a more enlightened way. Our species deserves a happy ending, with big hugs all around. Here’s hoping the explosive sounds we hear in the future come from a cosmic laugh track, not bombs.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021