Laughter & The Heromaker: The Power of Bringing the Beautiful in the Midst of the Painful

145 days and counting.

The length of the quarantine.

Those who know me know that one of my one favorite holidays this past Spring fell just inside of those 145 days. Less than two weeks into the quarantine, I was apparently still in denial of our global tragedy as I sent my husband out in the dark of night to put out signs that I had created as pranks for April Fool’s Day.

I confess it felt as though I were cheating on all my friends who were at home, concerned about the future of themselves, their families, and their nation. I was already hours into the festivities, having purchased fake everything—from gum to noise makers to ice cubes—to celebrate the holiday.

For me, laughing is cathartic. When I feel limp and broken, I laugh. When I feel as though I can’t control life or see a clear path through the dark, I laugh.

But this year, for the first time ever, I felt guilty for indulging in my Post-It Note extravaganza of my husband’s home office. COVID-19 does that to you. Laughing no longer felt good. Instead, it was a luxury that didn’t seem appropriate during this time and in this place.

Less laughter…

145 days later and many of us have experienced emotions we may not have experienced in years. “Corona tears” have been a thing—we are more quick to cry, to yell, and to explode into powerful emotions we have long kept hidden in the recesses of our souls. In fact, one Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published on the CDC website reported that:

During June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.

Here is the chart with a summary:

I’ve experienced more tears and anger these past months than in the past five years combined. In May, as news of George Floyd’s murder came to light, I found myself quick to judge those who believed differently than I did about our needed response. During those times, my daughter learned her first curse word as I ranted endlessly about injustice and silence and bigotry and xenophobia and of very real harm inflicted upon others because of these actions and worldviews.

(If I weren’t so frustrated, I may have laughed that I had just taught her the S-word! Oops.)

Laughing certainly no longer felt good during this time and in this place. A month passed before I realized that I hadn’t remembered the last time I had a good chuckle.

Recapturing laughter…and other necessary things

And then, one day, I noticed an older man laughing. Not the chuckle that is quickly smothered, but a deep belly laugh that shakes your entire being. This man was sitting with a friend (yes, 6 ft. apart) on a bench and laughing so hard that tears flowed like a river down his weather-beaten, sun-kissed, wrinkly cheeks.

Within an instant, his companion, a man 20 years his junior, started to belly laugh, too, whooping and wailing as he slammed his hand into his leg over and over.

And then, as though the sun’s rays had hit the earth, one after another person began to smile as they looked at the two on the bench. It was like watching a wave build momentum, crashing in a beautiful flush of a grand finale.

I was reminded of this incident only this past week while listening to a This American Life podcast episode called “Something Only I Can See.” Worth every minute of listening, Act 2 of the podcast is about a woman trying to tell a joke who cannot tell it because she is laughing so hard.

As I listened to her laugh, I too started to laugh. Laughing is contagious—and incredibly therapeutic. To see why laughter is great for you, check out these reasons from Mayo Clinic.

For many of us, however, laughing seems inappropriate these days. Indeed, in my Christian tradition, we have this pretty great book in the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes. Buried like a treasure is the summation of life with this given title: “There is time for everything.” Chapter 3 states this:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, 
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, 
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

There it is: a time to weep, yes. And we do.

But there is also a time to laugh.

Remembering those men on the bench, I remember that in the midst of our COVID-19 blues and our injustice rage, in the midst of our fears of the future and our desire to be seen and known and heard and understood, there is still one great gift that, for many of us, is waiting to be opened.

Perhaps many will open it when that final announcement is made: “A vaccine has been approved!” Perhaps others will open it when we start to see hardened hearts softened and quietly begin to proclaim that “Black lives really do matter.” Maybe it’ll come when we ring the bells of 2021, declaring 2020 a wash and imprisoned in the area marked  “The crappy annals of history.”

But what if that gift were to be opened sooner? What is the gift, you ask?

It’s everything good and joyful that brings us life. Call it what you will and live it as you can:

  • Laughter
  • Goodness
  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Smiles
  • Chuckles
  • Virtual hugs and air hugs and word hugs

The gift of laughter and love and joy is what our world needs right now. As depression and feelings of trauma continue to rise, so too does our need for the counter-balance of hope. Writer and theologian summarizes our current state—and our current need—well: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

We all see the terrible. So how can we bring the beautiful?

One way, for sure, is through laughter and goodness and joy and smiles. These beautiful things are contagious—and really, really good for us.

Gretchen Rubin, founder of The Happiness Project, talks about happiness this way: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.” 

Heromakers and smiles

Yesterday, I met a man named Sola. An Army vet, he served our country for 15 years in various capacities. As my kids and I played outside, I saw him drive up in something akin to a Humvee…but way cooler. It was shorter and was pulling behind it what looked like the old wagon my dad used to wheel my brother and I around in throughout our old neighborhood. But way bigger.

Sola, I learned, spent two years making this vehicle, which was a model of his military vehicle. He made it so that he could share his love of the Army and also showcase people who ought to be highlighted and noticed—people like our veterans.

His plan after COVID-19 ends? To use it in local parades around the country to celebrate the courageous lives of our veterans.

Not one time during our conversation did he stop smiling. As he told me about his passion, he waved his arms frantically, unable to contain his excitement through words alone.

Sola drove this vehicle around and stopped for anyone wanting to take a look or ask questions or talk about a veteran they know.

After our conversation, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Because this kind of goodness is contagious. It gives us permission, for just a moment, to put our pain and sorrow on hold and to instead take a break and breathe again.

What does this have to do with being a heromaker? Everything. Our happiness and joy can be like those ocean waves, gaining momentum, lifting spirits, and allowing those around us to see hope beyond this present moment.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.”

Let’s find beautiful ways to bring beauty to others during these sometimes terrible days.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Frederick Buechner

Laurie Nichols is founder of the Heromakers Movement, a freelance editor and writer, and is committed to helping those who have been marginalized to become the those who most deeply impact and inspire how we all live and how we see the world.