…when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.
The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became. —(Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)
We all need a little laughter in our lives, whether we’re dealing with cancer, an overly-busy and stressful life, remembering those who’ve passed on, or simply sharing time with friends and loved ones. We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.
It’s true. In the summer of 2013, I participated in the Omega Institute’s “Living Well with Cancer weekend. At the closing event, the topics turned from treatment, nutrition, and spiritual matters to an evening of comedy. Kathy LaTour, Cure Magazine editor, performed “One Mutant Cell,” a humorous account of her cancer journey, and comedian and cancer survivor, Scott Burton, a cancer offered comic relief with his juggling and stand-up act designed to confront the mystery and fear of chronic disease. The laughter among the attendees, all living with cancer, filled the room.
Laughter is good for us. It breaks the ice; relaxes us, builds community, and reminds us not to take ourselves quite so seriously. Even in the midst of something as soul shattering as a cancer diagnosis, we can still find things that make us smile. Laughter brightens the day and our outlook. Laugh a little, and we all feel better.
It’s why, a week ago, I shared David Wagoner’s poem, “The Junior High School Band Concert” with one of my “Writing through Cancer” groups as the inspiration for writing that morning.
When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed though our cross fire…
I can never read Wagoner’s poem without laughing out loud, remembering all too well a particular band concert decades ago, when I and two other students comprised the French horn section in our high school band. For much of the academic year, we were a marching band, parading around the football field as half-time entertainment, buttoned up in red and black uniforms, matching hats, all outfit adorned with gold braid. I hated football season because of it—the brass mouthpiece like ice, bouncing against my lips, the monotony of the French horn accompaniment, a steady “um tah, um tah” on the after beat or a “ta, ti, ta, ti” while it seemed that all the other instruments were given more interesting and melodic parts. To this day, I cringe at Souza marches, and I don’t follow football season.
In Springtime, however, life in the band improved. We became a symphonic band—of sorts—and spring was preparation time for the regional high school band competition. That memorable year, we French horn players were to lead with the opening theme of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” We were positively beside ourselves, thrilled to finally have a brief, but major part in a musical score. We practiced for weeks.
…And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.
The day of the competition, we filed into the host school’s auditorium and onto the stage to take our places. Our band leader, “Pop” Behnke, followed, looking proud and stately in his white uniform with the brass buttons and gold braid. He tapped his baton against the music stand, we positioned our instruments and on cue, began playing. Two of us had faithfully rehearsed for weeks, , but our third horn player, less inclined to regular practice, made up for the sour notes with an enthusiasm that overwhelmed us all. We sounded the first notes of the “New World Symphony” like the horn blasts of a sinking ship…loud and without an ounce of modulation. I glanced up and caught a glimpse of Pop Behnke’ s face—his look of shock, followed by a lopsided smile, the realization that any likelihood of our high school band walking away with the trophy had just evaporated. Perhaps we knew we’d already lost then, but it seemed only to inspire us to play even more loudly, as if added volume could somehow tip the balance in our favor. I still giggle when I think of it, although at the time, I don’t think we laughed much as the winners were announced– our band was not among them.
By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.
(From Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press, 1999)
During our workshop, we read first Wagoner’s poem aloud before everyone wrote about a humorous event in their lives. When the group shared their narratives, the mood lightened; we giggled and guffawed as the humorous mishaps in everyone’s life were recounted. Everyone left the session with smiles on thier faces. Laughter was very good medicine—its healing benefits experienced by everyone.
Remember Norman Cousins’ famous account of how he used laughter to cure himself of a debilitating illness? It turns out, he wasn’t the first to advocate for the power of laughter. Mark Twain, whose wit and wisdom is an established part of American lore, wrote: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Smiling and laughter are contagious. Whether during cancer treatment or simply living a world be constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.
As you write this week, dig back into your memories—the fun times, a time, perhaps you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks. Take a break from writing about cancer and the more serious topics of life. Instead, try writing about something that makes you smile, even laugh out loud each time you remember it. Laugh a little. You’ll feel better.