(Gina Barreca’s column appeared in the Hartford Courant Feb. 8. Reposted by permission of the author.)
We all enter this world crying. Laughter is something we have to learn.
We learn to laugh through contact with somebody else who’s doing it, which, unless you’re a twin, is yet another difference from the whole “being born” business.
And although it is possible to laugh alone, like so many other things, it’s a lot more fun to do it with others. I’m thinking, of course, of miniature golf.
My journalist friend Gene Weingarten says, the very moment we learn to laugh depends on having somebody else there. He believes it all comes down to peekaboo. (Yes, like so many other things.)
Weingarten argues that “peekaboo tickles before tickling tickles” and the experience of humor goes back to the moment when a baby watches somebody cover her face with her hands and then yell “peekaboo!” in glee as she removes them. That irrepressible combination of surprise-plus-continuity is at the heart of it, says Weingarten of The Washington Post (I’m referring to peekaboo, not to the paper, you understand).
We adore being a little bit shocked but we also immediately want to see that our shock is just silly. We want to be reminded, by the release of laughter, that what we love has not actually disappeared.
Psychologists refer to this as “object permanence.” Perhaps you’ve referred it to it in less clinical terms if, as I have, you have begun what turned into a marathon session of peekaboo with a tyke who has been affected by too much excitement, sugar or double-espresso shots. Kids will play peekaboo until the cows come home, or until it simply smells as if they did.
Our appetite for that kind of fun dwindles as we grow up. It is replaced by the mind-numbing drudgery of life. After all, there’s kindergarten with its endless crayoning, crayoning and crayoning. And school? With the horror of, well, learning? And sitting? And snacking before learning again? No wonder we lose our mirth.
A sense of humor is not hardwired into our systems once we get past the peekaboo stage; if you’ve ever commuted to work by bus you know this for a fact. But a sense of humor can be developed as can another talent or skill set. Like carrying a tune or picking up the check, however, some people never master the art.
Some folks don’t realize that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
They believe themselves to have cornered the market on misery, frustration and disappointment. They tell you about their unhappy childhoods and dysfunctional families as if they were the only ones ever to have been ritually humiliated, even before “America’s Funniest Home Videos” went global. They complain about their parents, kids, jobs or neighbors to the point where their tales of woe are, like certain exotic foods, hard to swallow.
But bad times, we must remember, are inevitable: We all face death, we all face suffering, we all face the prospect of another season of “Dance Moms.” You have two alternatives: You can crack up or you can crack a smile.
Unlike bad times, however, good times aren’t bullies who break down the doors and barge in. Joy and pleasure are, instead, excellent guests and, as such, they wait for an invitation. You have to open the door to life’s best moments; you have to invite them in and welcome them when they arrive.
To be honest, I’ve always found that it’s best to make a big fuss when good times appear at the threshold. You want them to feel absolutely at home. You wouldn’t want them to feel that, while you’re happy enough to see them, you were expecting a little more razzle-dazzle. They might not come again. They depend on genuine hospitality. You wouldn’t want them to think they’d arrived too late, or were deemed insignificant, or were weighed and found wanting.
Survival, or making survival worth the bother, depends on seeking joy, uncovering and discovering humor, and, in one of life’s great ironies, carefully nurturing a sense of the absurd.
Remembering to laugh is as essential as learning how to peekaboo in the first place. It can’t make the darkness go away, but it does admit the light.
— Gina Barreca
Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, feminist scholar and author of eight books, keynoted the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.