I was asked to do a two-hour program on humor at a local hospital. It was to be the first of several programs for the staff in its Wellness Series. The talk was titled “Getting Serious About Being Lighthearted,” and was scheduled to begin at 10 AM on September 11, 2001.
The television set was on when I arrived at the hospital’s main waiting room at 9:30 that morning showing the images of the World Trade Center. Then I looked around at the others in the waiting room to try to get a grasp of what was happening and saw the sign announcing my program. It took a moment to understand that what I saw was live, and my first thought was how I could possibly go on with the program? The second thought was that we are always called to lift ourselves up in the face of tragedy. That has always been the focus of my work in a hospital setting.
For several years I had worked for an international peace and justice organization and became very aware of the hardships and dangers that people in many parts of the world have to live with all the time. I often found myself speaking about the idea that there is no longer “someplace else;” that we need somehow to grasp that we can no longer find comfort in the idea that whatever is occurring is not happening in our particular geographic location. The events of that morning made it all too clear.
The director of the series escorted me to the conference room. He did not ask me whether I had second thoughts about conducting the class. For that omission I am grateful.
My work as a performer began in 1992 following a trip to Russia with Dr. Patch Adams to clown in children’s hospitals, orphanages and reform schools. I then became involved in the clown program at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut. Now I am a storyteller and talk about my clown work as part of my storytelling program. I believe the clown’s presence brings light into dark places, and that light brings healing. In a surprise moment, the sight of clowns in outrageous costumes, dancing with each other and the staff, watching someone on staff blow bubbles, generates the laughter that shatters and dispels whatever dark mode is prevalent; shatters the despair and bleakness, and brings light where it is most needed. It seems that, in a sense, it must sneak in, because we are too conditioned to think that when people are suffering it is inappropriate to have a good time.
I call myself a minimalist clown. I come to my talks dressed in standard attire. At a certain point I pose the question: How little does it take to create magic? I answer by putting on a red nose, and by the laughter it provokes, it is clear that the answer is “not much.” Contrary to needing to be very skillful, I pride myself that I do not do anything complicated that anyone else cannot do. I say that my job is to put myself out of business and that will happen when everyone taps into their own clown persona; their own sense of what it means to have a light heart.
I gave everyone in the class a red nose, and after relating how I transitioned from a mother, to a nurse, to a clown, I set them loose in the hospital. Their task was to wear the red nose, hand out hug coupons, smile and report back. They shared some lovely stories.
My storytelling program is called “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.” A few months ago, I told an audience at an assisted living residence, where the average age was 90, that my wild dreams have changed over the years. I used to dream about biking across the US or climbing Mt. Everest, but now I dream of people laughing and dancing and singing and taking care of each other. Dreaming is something we can and must do.
I then asked the group to share with each other a dream they could hold and return to in their thought, because if one wants to see a dream happen, it must first be created in thought. We need to dream of the world we want to create for our children and grandchildren.
Now it seems that the thoughts and sentiments I express have taken on a larger life and are no longer the concerns of a specialized audience. In a sense, the world has become one huge hospital. We are all forever changed and all in need of healing.
We need to understand what that means for us and how to find our way to it. I believe we can do that by recognizing what is already hale for us.
Without warning, after September 11, many were thrown into the role of caregiver and it is so clear that we know how to do that and do it very well. The stories I have heard tell me that the moments of reaching out to others, giving and sharing ourselves, are our finest moments. Taking care of each other is who we are. It is not something we have to learn to do or think about.
However, there is another aspect of our nature that we need to recover our capacity for joy. Many celebratory events that had been scheduled for 9/11 and shortly thereafter were cancelled. Comedy shows and comedy hosts were at a loss. Someone who works in the Wall Street area mourned the loss of the lighthearted exchanges he and his co-workers used to engage in, and he fears is no longer possible. After hearing all these stories, I wondered whether my going on was somehow disrespectful of the enormous tragedy we suffered. Yet, it seemed to be what was needed, and served to show the possibility of lifting ourselves up without denying what had happened. I wonder though how we can now move forward to a new and better understanding of what joy and humor mean. We may have gotten trapped in the mindset I expressed before, that in the face of tragedy or suffering, it is inappropriate to have a good time.
Actually, more than ever, it is not only appropriate, it is essential. Polls have shown how priorities have changed, waking us to the fact that we have not taken the time to focus on what it is that is really important in our lives: our friends, family, those we love and care about. Those relationships are what call us to celebrate. That is joy expressed in its beauty and simplicity.
We are called to celebrate life, the beauty of creation and all the gifts we have been given. The expression of joy, that comes from a heart full of light, will never be inappropriate because it is founded on the truth of our unity and is a quality of our being.
The Bible is full of references to joy and rejoicing. There are no instructions on how to do it, anymore than there are instructions on how to love. But the Bible does speak of joy as an aspect of spirit: “In thy presence, is fullness of joy; let all who put their trust in thee rejoice.” We can allow joy to rest on this foundation and draw from it continual sustenance.
In one way it is more possible to celebrate if we do not see joy as limited by our human personal preferences and dependent on some particular occurrence. Joy can be recognized as independent of our situation. Many people who have suffered unspeakable tragedies have found their way to the understanding that transcends the personal.
There is also much written about laughter and its healing power. Laughter is an expression of joy, and has a benefit that can help us now. Laughter has the power to transform fear and take away its power. Laughter destroys the “somethingness” of fear so that it can fall away without a struggle. We can see fear for what it is and not allow it to take up permanent residence. Laughter can bring us that insight and put us in the place of choice. In that larger perspective we can choose to live hopefully rather than fearfully and allow our innate joyful nature to surface.
And there are many simple, silly ways to stir that up and guard us from taking joy too seriously. It might do us all good to wear red noses from time to time, paint hearts or other symbols on our cheeks, hand out hug coupons, or simply smile. One peace activist claims that smiling is the basis of peace work.
Another current phenomenon is the emergence of Laughing Clubs where people come together and laugh “for no reason.” It is understood that laughing and smiling are part of the human experience. A baby smiles naturally as if there were joy in just being. It appears to be our natural state which we have disowned in the process of growing up.
If we do need a reason to laugh and be joyful, we have been given reason enough. A great tragedy has brought us together. It has allowed us to realize the depth of our caring and the truth of our interdependence. We have the possibility of transforming it further into another realization of what we are: a source of joy for each other and for our world.