Is there a place for a sense of humor in the life of an Orthodox Christian? Due to the fact that we mainly hear about sins and repentance, and that Christ does not laugh anywhere in the Gospel, it seems that there is simply no place for laughter in church life.
The main reason we come to the Church is repentance. It can be with tears, and it can be joyful as well. Not funny but joyful. After all, when we sing: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” – our hearts are filled with joy and jubilation, but this does not mean that we stop repenting of our sins. And perhaps at this very moment – and not when we cry about our imperfection – the greatest repentance is accomplished.
Nothing is certain with laughter. For example, Wikipedia says that laughter is an involuntary reaction of a person. Not just natural, but involuntary! That is, we can probably suppress our laughter in some situations – though not always, sometimes we burst out laughing at the most inopportune moment – but we are not likely to make ourselves laugh. That is, an external stimulus is needed, and it should act on me in such a way that I really laugh involuntarily.
Laughter can be different. You can see a cripple on the street and laugh at him. Or react in the same way to a foolish thing that someone say. Laughter can be evil, boorish, offensive, arrogant, vulgar. What are people laughing at mostly? 90% are vulgar jokes, as they say, “below the belt.” That is, it is precisely to this that the “involuntary reaction” arises. Why?
Perhaps because it is still – what is absolutely fair by the way – taboo in our society. And something that we cannot openly talk about, something that is hidden and taboo, can break through in the form of laughter. Hence, traveling minstrel culture, and political jokes that flourish as a genre when power begins to tighten the siege. When a free expression is pinched, it goes into ditties, jokes, buffoonery – anything possible to laugh at. In this sense, laughter testifies to a certain constriction, unnaturalness and an attempt to get out of it. That is why Christ never laughed – He was perfect, absolutely natural and free. It’s even hard for us to imagine Him laughing. Smiling – yes, rejoicing – yes, but laughing …
I often advise people something I always advise myself: “Let success be capricious, it chooses from those who can be the first to laugh at oneself,” as one old song says. In general, I do not consider too serious attitude to myself a virtue. I’m closer to the life philosophy of Baron Munchausen from the famous film: “A serious face is not a sign of intelligence, gentlemen. All the stupid things on earth are done with this very expression. Smile, gentlemen! Smile!” I understand this very well and believe that it is very important to be able to be not too serious.
But laughter is also a terrible weapon. When mean things are said about a person, he can become stronger from this, it can even promote his media image. But if they start to make fun of him and it turns out really funny – it can destroy not only the reputation. Actually, laughter is a very powerful weapon against pride. Of course, I mean laughter at ourselves.
Humor helps us see and understand something. And with the help of a joke, with the help of some kind of image, you can feel and understand a lot of things about life, including spiritual life.
But one should not look for humor in the Scriptures. In the same way, as one should not, for example, think whether the apostles were engaged in sports. There are many aspects of human life that are almost never discussed in Scripture. And we can absolutely safely leave them in our lives, realizing that we already have enough spiritual and moral issues. Although, you know, I have repeatedly seen people starting with a funny laugh at a joke that helps to understand something in spiritual life, and after two or three jokes ended up saying frank vulgarity. That is, laughter really removes many of the barriers that people have built. Some of them really should be removed, but some barriers should be left untouched. But when we start to laugh, then, sometimes, we can no longer stop. And I have repeatedly seen how something really bad was happening at that moment.
It’s like with wine – you can drink it, but you need to know – when, how much and with whom. After all, we well know how much evil wine can bring. Same thing with laughter. “Indeed, to laugh at something that seems ridiculous is not a sin,” said the classic. But it is necessary to stop on time. There are other things, in general, quite natural for our earthly life, which, when you overuse them, become very destructive.
In order to determine the line, you need to turn to empathy – joint experience of another person’s emotions. And laughter should stop where you can hurt another person.
Our willingness to laugh and the appropriateness of laughter are connected with our sympathy for the pain of another. If suddenly our laughter hurts someone, this is an absolute taboo. When, say, a child is bullied at school, some do it physically, while others laugh at it – and it is still unknown what is worse for him. Therefore, as soon as you notice that your laughter, your playfulness hurts another, you should stop right there.
In Lewis’s last chapter of “The Screwtape Letters,” the old demon tells the young demon that one of the main tricks is to make people to go to the side of the boat, which is about to scoop the water up. There are situations when laughter really relieves stress, helps you to survive, shows some important aspects of life, inspires hope. Yes, in some situations, all you can do is to laugh. And if you do not laugh, then, as they say, you’ve nothing left but to hang yourself.
It is not hope that is the last thing to be lost – it is a sense of humor. Though for the most part, they advise me to be more serious, however, I understand in some situations that I just should have smiled, but I took everything too seriously.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds