laughter

3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.

Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.

I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”

I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”

Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.

I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.

'Gothic Piles' No Longer Necessary for Finding Faith

Riverside Church in New York City. RNS file photo

On a Greenwich Village street where male prostitutes seeking customers shout out their dimensions, I walked past an open but empty church on my way to the subway.

In times past, flocking to church on Sunday morning was a beloved family routine, even here in bad old Gotham. Now they’re trying nontraditional worship on Sunday evenings.

It’s a struggle, both here and elsewhere in the 21st-century Christian world. Buildings with “beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God,” as Luke described the temple in ancient Jerusalem, are falling into disuse and disrepair — not because Caesar attacked and took revenge on an alien religion, but because the world changed and gathering weekly in “Gothic piles” no longer seems necessary for finding faith.

Pursuing Grace, Onstage and Off

LAUGHTER IS Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor has the narrative arc of a classic Greek tragedy: Boy from religious sect grows up, becomes a butcher, goes to seminary, then finds acting acclaim as part of a duo (Ted & Lee), only to have his comedic partner die by suicide, after which the show must go on and does.

Ted Swartz’s story is a bittersweet tale, with emphasis on the sweet. It is told in the structure of a five-act play. What originally drew me was the fact that Swartz’s late acting partner, Lee Eshleman, was a classmate of mine at Eastern Mennonite University, where we were art majors to-gether. Eshleman was easily the most talented among us. (His line drawings illustrate the book.) He was also smart, funny, and regal.

After I left EMU, unmarried and pregnant, I would sometimes see Eshleman’s name on the masthead of the alumni magazine and think, “I wish I had it as together as Lee does.” It was a shock to hear that, like my own son, Eshleman too had died by suicide.

His death and its impact on Swartz take up a good deal of space in this memoir. The duo worked together for 20 years, and Swartz is honest about the ups and downs of their friendship. He does a great job of communicating that Eshleman was much more than his suicide or his bipolar disorder. He was that extraordinary person I remember.

As important as the message is of surviving a loved one’s suicide, there’s much more to Swartz’s book. It is the candid journey of an artist, one that affirms both the calling and challenges of being an artist in a religious context.

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Is Laughter Really the Best Medicine?

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

-- Proverbs 17:22

How can one have a cheerful heart in this time of global climate change, natural disasters, and violence on every hand in nearly every land? How can we speak of humor, levity, jesting, and laughter when our world is in such pain?

Having a cheerful heart, as the author of Proverbs put it, does not mean that we avoid engagement in serious peacemaking work. What it means is that humor can provide interludes in many of the deepest reaches of seemingly desperate situations.

There is a time and place for humor. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance." Humor -- like art, music, and dance -- is essential for the well-being of the human spirit.

Healthy humor is inviting and forgiving, never hurtful, and often involves some kind of pleasant, incongruent surprise. For example, I recently heard a 4-year-old (whose parents live in Ohio and grandparents in Iowa) ask his mother if he was a Buckeye or a Hawkeye. His mother wisely replied, "Ivan, you can be anything you want to be," to which the boy replied, "Good, then I want to be Chinese!" We have all heard comedy routines, at stand-up clubs or on TV sitcoms, that are sarcastic, acerbic, and hurtful to one population or another. This is not healthy humor.

It is well documented that stress has negative effects on our immune systems and our general health. While there have been few studies on the positive effects of healthy humor, and the scientific evidence is still unfolding, available information strongly suggests that humor, with its inherent laughter, has many benefits:

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