The day after 9/11, I was working for the Red Cross taking inbound calls for missing persons in the fallen towers. Somewhere mid-morning I received a call from a woman whose husband was missing. Her call was like all the others I had received: she offered a description of him, information about where he worked, what time he left. Then something totally unexpected happened. She began to laugh.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you! He left the house with the worst tie on. It was this horrible green color with flamingos. I told him it didn’t match,” she laughed.”
I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. For several moments we sat at opposite ends of the phone line in silence. Finally she said, “I’m sorry. Maybe laughter seems inappropriate right now. But it’s all my family and I have left.”
I learned something about grief—and about laughter—that day. While most of us think of laughing as something we do only in comedy clubs, in fact laughter may be the most powerful healing tool we have. For some it’s a way of lifting the crushing burden of crisis to allow for a brief moment of reprieve. For others, it is a tool to help get through the stages for grief. For the woman on the other end of my phone line, it was a lifeboat in a great sea of despair.
Since that day, I have lived and worked in New York City and have witnessed first-hand the pains of healing and transition, especially the violent reactions to our Muslim brothers and sisters. If I have one hope for our city, our nation and our world, it is that we may find a way to dialogue, to listen and eventually, together, to laugh.
Some may bristle at that suggestion. For many, to laugh with someone means you forgive them—that all is okay. In fact, laughter is much more complex. In its purest form, laughter is a not about giving up, it is about opening up.
As a minister and also a professional comedian, I’ve found a great example of this power. A few years after 9/11, I started working with a standup rabbi and a Muslim comic in the “Laugh in Peace” tour. Created by Rabbi Bob Alper, “Laugh in Peace” is an interfaith comedy show targeted at building bridges between diverse communities. Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten and we all laugh together.
The bottom line? Humor highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone, whether it is a stranger, a friend, or an enemy, our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment. It is then that our differences fade and our common connections gleam forth. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart.”
There is much healing left to do. And many hearts are still broken. But on this upcoming anniversary of 9/11 we all face one simple question: Will we leave a legacy of retribution or one of restoration?
Give our children the legacy they deserve. Show them the tools to heal and move forward. Give them (and ourselves) permission to laugh. In the end it may be the lifeboat that keeps us all afloat.