Originally published on Psychology Today.
For thousands of years, arks have been an archetype of protection and safety. The Aborigines in Australia, for example, tell a story of a Frog who swallowed all the water in the world and caused a great drought. The only way to stop the drought was to make the Frog laugh. Animals from all over came to make him laugh. Finally, the Eel made the Frog laugh and water poured from his mouth and a great flood came. Then the Pelican went from island to island rescuing people in a great canoe.
While we typically expect arks to come in the form of large wooden boats, humor is another, less literal, type of ark that also offers refuge.
On September 12, 2001, I was working for the Red Cross in downtown Manhattan. We were taking inbound calls for missing persons in the fallen Trade Towers. About half way through the shift, my phone rang, and a woman’s voice tentatively said, “I need your help.”
Slowly, she began offering a missing person’s report for her husband who had been working on one of the higher floors of the south tower. She described him in great detail: where he worked, what he looked like, how the rescue workers might recognize him. Suddenly, in the middle of her description, she began to laugh hysterically.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she blurted out. “He left the house with the worst tie on! It was like this horrible green color with flamingos and palm trees.” She continued to laugh.
Unsure of how to respond, I said nothing.
Eventually, she stopped laughing.
After a moment of silence, she said, “You must think me crazy laughing like this.” She paused again, then whispered, “But laughter is all my family and I have left.”
An ark in a different form, laughter can act as a lifeboat for those in crisis: a place of protection, a means of moving to and through grief.
When we can laugh in a place of pain, we are reminded that suffering is not who we are; it is what we are experiencing. We are also freed to grieve.
One of the more memorable funerals I ever performed was for a woman named Mary, the matriarch of a large family in my congregation. A beautiful woman full of life and passion, Mary always took great pride in her appearance.
When I arrived at the funeral home, I was escorted by Mary’s daughter, Nancy, over to the casket to say a prayer. As we bowed our heads, I placed one hand on Nancy’s shoulder, and with the other I reached into the casket. When I touched Mary’s arm, I froze. It was hard with sharp edges-almost square.
“What is this?” I blurted out, pulling my hand out of the casket.
Nancy opened her eyes, looked down at Mary, and then broke out laughing.
“Oh, I forgot,” she said pulling out a box from within Mary’s sleeve. “We slipped a bottle of Miss Clairol hair color in for Mama’s journey. She always worried that they might not have her exact formula on the other side.”
We laughed until we cried, and then cried until we started laughing again.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The self same well from which your laughter rises was often times filled with your tears.” Tears of sorrow and tears of laughter come from the same place. And because of that, sometimes only laughter can help us access those deep places of grief and pain.
Bottom line? If you can laugh at it, you can live with it, for sometimes only laughter is the ark that can get us through.