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I Believe in the Gift of Laughter

by Becca Carney, Julius Nyerere House, Dodoma, Tanzania 14, Loyola University Maryland. From her blog:

The following reflection was written while I was on retreat in April. A fellow JV led the session with material inspired by the NPR program This I Believe.

I believe in the gift of laughter. If this experience as a JV in Tanzania has taught me anything in the past 18 months, it’s that the power of laughter unites individuals while healing the heart, mind, and soul. I never realized how healthy laughter was and how much I needed it in my life to feel connected with others.

But first, let me be clear: laughter is not humor or being funny. A person who is funny says or does funny things to generate a response out of others—sometimes to feel good about her/himself or sometimes to distract. It’s not all bad, but however it is, that funny person is at the center. A lack of balance is created if one is in the center and others are merely responding. Laughter, on the other hand, is a shared experience above everything else. Sure, we can laugh by ourselves and sometimes one person starts the laugh, but at the heart of laughter is that connection. Everyone can and does laugh. Not everyone can be funny. I believe in the gift of laughter because it weaves connections between people from all walks of life.

When I first arrived in Tanzania, I struggled with the newness of everything, and especially with the language. As a person who values great conversation and meaningful relationships, I felt lost not being able to feel connected with anyone due to a complete inability to communicate. Then, one day while I was on the daladala for one of the first times alone, I was sitting next to an old woman who had a baby on her lap. Conversations were going on around me that I did not understand and I was scared to look the woman in the eye for the fear that she would start talking to me. Then suddenly, the baby started hiccuping. And after each hiccup, he would giggle. He continued to do this until the laughing escalated and I couldn’t tell which one was causing the other—the laughter or the hiccups. I, of course, couldn’t help myself and started chuckling. I then glanced at the mother who joined me in laughing at this innocent and beautiful moment. I became at ease and I felt a bond to this woman and her baby.

Call it God or the spirit or a shared humanity, I believe in laughter because it crosses cultures, generations, and identities. People might express laughter differently, but each one of us has that innate physical reaction. It’s a form of communication— that same communication in which I was so frustrated because I couldn’t express myself. Maybe we laugh at ourselves in the simple mistakes that we make. Maybe we laugh at a situation because it brings us to a comfortable place. Laughter brings us together. It has helped me to not feel so self-conscious and afraid when I have messed up with Kiswahili. So that even if ‘I understand’, telling people I’m drunk is just as good (the words sound similar in Kiswahili). We laugh at the small mistakes. Or when the priest at community mass falls asleep during the homily, why can’t I giggle at how uncanny that is? Laughter is best shared with others. Ranking my favorite laughs among St. Peter Claver High School staff members is a fond past time. It feels good that another person has the potential to make my guard come down through a communal laughter.

I believe in the gift of laughter because it helps me to be vulnerable. If I can let the wall I built around me chip away by joining in a beautiful and uplifting moment with someone, I can push myself to share other things. And more often than not, laughter opens up doors in levels of mutual comfort and support that allows space for the sharing of deeper emotions—regardless of how well I know the language. I believe in the gift of laughter because it has brought me back to connections with other people that help me feel alive.