Tears and laughter

My grandmother’s house was dark, cramped and cheerless. She lived in an early Victorian terrace with a company of cats and an outside loo. As a child I remember how unfamiliar this dwelling felt compared with my own home. It seemed, therefore, quite incongruous that, in this rather depressing place, one of my most vivid memories is of a wooden plaque mounted on the wall of the sitting room which read, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” Little did I know that these lines were part of a poem entitled Solitude by the American author, Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Wilcox probably wrote the poem at about the same time that my grandmother’s house was being built. Interestingly, I cannot recall if the sitting room text included the second line of the stanza, “Weep, and you weep alone.” I almost certainly think that it should have contained these words considering the melancholic disposition of my grandmother’s home.

Legend has it that the then, single, Miss Wheeler was on her way to a ball when she encountered a young woman, dressed in black and full of tears. She was in mourning and her story made such an impact upon Ella that she converted her sorrow into words:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone. For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, but has trouble enough of its own.”

Our ‘sad old earth’ has experienced too many tears of sorrow in recent weeks. The experiences of the injured and the bereaved is likely to make a significant impact on many lives, but hopefully in a creative way. The human condition has many different techniques in coping with shock, trauma and loss. One of the key coping mechanisms is that of laughter. The legendary British sense of humour has benefited countless generations through much turmoil and despair. It seems that laughter has a self-beneficial quality, producing a sense of well-being through the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins can even temporarily relieve pain, physical or emotional.

So, it was with interest that I heard the back end of a conversation on radio this week which revealed the paucity of comedy shows on TV. This was especially apparent in the wake of such traumatic events in the world this week. Light relief in the form of stand-up comedy, sit-coms or satire was much in demand but not scheduled in the TV listings. Is this indicative of a more endemic problem? Are we as a society too engrossed with the sombre side of life? Are we too caught up in our dark, cramped and cheerless lives? It seems that humanity is more geared up to weep than laugh at this present time. I remember with great joy the Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Dave Allen and Dick Emery. I have been overtaken by tears of laughter at Blackadder, The Office, Gavin & Stacey, Little Britain and Have I Got News For You.  Where has the laughter gone from this ‘sad old earth?’

A portrait of Jesus laughing from the Latin American Christian tradition. Source unknown.
A portrait of Jesus laughing from the Latin American Christian tradition. Source unknown.

One of the main narrative threads in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose was the dispute in the dark, cramped and cheerless monastic community about whether the historical Jesus laughed or not. The gospels record Jesus weeping but not laughing, but this does not mean that he didn’t laugh. His storytelling is fun and playful and we know that he possessed the most incredible charismatic presence. Christians in Latin America have nurtured a tradition of a laughing Jesus because they understand the close proximity between tears and laughter, not least in the face of turmoil and oppression. Jesus himself said: “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). I wonder if an authentic Christian response to the present state of our ‘sad old earth’ is the gift of laughter. So, in the immortal words of Dave Allen, ‘May your God go with you.’


Author: Gavin Knight

The Revd Gavin Knight has been the Vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown in the Oxford Diocese since September 2011. After serving his title at St Alphege, Solihull, Gavin became parish priest of St Andrew's Fulham Fields in London. He moved to Wales in 2005 becoming Chaplain to Monmouth School. He is married to Jo, a clinical psychologist, and they have three sons.