In the late 1970s I lived in a rural university town where a significant number of people were thought of as hippies. They rejected prevailing bourgeois values and led back-to-the-land lifestyles. I respected their bold, independent ways and imagined myself a kindred spirit, even though I myself was thoroughly bourgeois.
One day I was reading a book in the “radical cafe” near the campus when a hippy-man sat down at my table. Sharing tables was common in that cafe, which espoused a more Marxist, communal way of doing things. When I glanced up from my book to acknowledge the man, he started talking. Eventually he explained his philosophy of life and his solutions for what ailed the human race. One of his big ideas involved bananas.
He said, “Everyone’s so depressed and you know why?” (I did not.) “They don’t have enough potassium, man! If everyone ate bananas they’d get enough potassium and they wouldn’t be depressed. It’s all in the bananas!” This made me laugh and so we talked for a while, enjoying each other’s company, laughing at each other’s jokes. When he got up to leave, he paused and with genuine sweetness said, “I dig your mirth, man.” We shook hands, then he was gone and I never saw him again. But the memory of him and our brief but warm encounter still makes me smile and appreciate the connecting power of humor.
Sometimes humor can penetrate our discouragement when all else has failed. Ten years ago a friend of mine was admitted to an inpatient addiction rehab clinic. I sat with him for moral support while a staff counselor conducted the orientation interview. For my friend, entering rehab was a moment of real defeat—just barely better than going to jail.
The counselor asked, “Do you smoke cigarettes?” My friend looked at her with despair, as if this were the final indignity, and answered, “I’m trying to quit”—which made all three of us laugh out loud, considering where we were. I greatly appreciated his sense of humor and how it slightly but significantly mitigated his misery in this situation.
Mirth at its best is a shared experience that has power to reduce obstacles to intimacy. When I worked with incarcerated men, laughter was a great therapeutic tool that often eased them closer to each other, creating bonds and softening the hardened edges that men sometimes form around their deep sadness. As one inmate astutely observed, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry, but laughing makes crying feel better.”
A shared laugh is a great leveler, a way to feel human together, even a way to restore dignity. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during WWII who saved tens of thousands of Jews from extermination. After the war, he was arrested by his former Soviet allies and charged with espionage. He was presumably taken to Siberia, and no one heard from him again.
Information about Wallenberg in captivity is scant, but one prisoner who escaped a brutal Soviet labor camp described a brief but humorous encounter with the great man: One day as Wallenberg was being treated roughly by his captors he called out, “Taxi!” —much to the amusement of his fellow prisoners who, despite their privations, were heartened by his gutsy gallows humor.
A sense of humor in the face of suffering can be a saving grace that strengthens resilience and suggests a spark of hope. When we laugh we are fully present in the moment, if only briefly. The clarity of that present-ness is pleasing despite what other burdens we carry. As they say, laughter is good medicine, but it can also be good food, water, and oxygen.
While traveling in India, I lived for a time in a third floor apartment adjacent to a beautiful park. I immediately learned that a Hindu worship group gathered in the park beneath my window every morning at 7AM. What a drag. I was hoping I could sleep late most mornings. Their meetings lasted one hour and always ended with laughter yoga.
Laughter yoga involves group members looking directly at each other and forcing laughter, in the belief that feigned laughter is as beneficial to the body and soul as spontaneous laughter. I noticed it didn’t take long for the fake laughter to become genuine, leaving the whole group cracking up for real. Sometimes I’d stand at the window and tell jokes at my normal volume and pretend to enjoy the hysterics of my “audience”. What might have been a noisy nuisance became a secretly shared mirth that helped me feel tenderness towards this group of devotees.
Mirth may be a higher order of humor, a deeper kind of delight. The poet William Blake said, “Too much fun is of all things most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth.” It is reasonable to me that a growing sense of mirth, rather than a growing cynicism, is a tremendous asset for a happy life. “Mirth is better than fun” is a strange sounding phrase to the modern ear, which distinguishes very little between the two. Contemporary life offers countless options for mirthless fun, empty entertainment, and banal diversions. Mirth, on the other hand, is uplifting and informative; it has meaningful content. It brings people together and leaves a person physically and emotionally healthier when concluded. Mirth is never sarcastic; it banishes the critical voice that brings toxic judgment to ourselves or to others.
A mirthful approach to life may be akin to meditation, attending fully to the present moment, the opposite of escapism. I wonder how much sooner we’d hear whispers of contentment in our souls if we intentionally cultivated a humorous or mirthful filter for the moments of our day that might otherwise be irritating or discouraging. Mirth enlarges our capacity to take on the poignant struggles of life. For these reasons and others, I dig mirth, too. And with all due respect to my long lost hippy friend, I’d say mirth is probably better than bananas.