President Trump announced yesterday the White House’s three-phase plan for easing social distancing measures, a subject I intend to discuss in this afternoon’s Special Edition. For this morning, however, let’s shift from news about the coronavirus pandemic to focus on a surprising way to respond to news about the pandemic.
I’m reading Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood, which masterfully sets Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in its historical context. I have long been a student of Civil War history, but I did not realize the depth of personal rejection and suffering our sixteenth president endured as he tried to lead the nation through her most perilous days.
And yet, Lincoln was famous during the war for his quips and down-home humor. He would often respond to criticism and anger with a story that changed the entire tone of the moment. He once explained his strategy: “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.”
On another occasion Lincoln said he felt “like the boy that stumped his toe: it hurt too bad to laugh, and he was too big to cry.” He summarized his spirit in crisis this way: “I laugh because I must not cry.”
“The world has turned upside down”
Now let’s try an experiment. A dear friend sent me some “humor while in quarantine” yesterday:
- “Quarantine has turned us into dogs. We roam the house all day looking for food. We are told ‘no’ if we get too close to strangers. And we get really excited about car rides.”
- “The world has turned upside down. Old folks are sneaking out of the house, and their kids are yelling at them to stay indoors.”
- “2019: Stay away from negative people. 2020: Stay away from positive people.”
- “Tomorrow is the National Homeschool Tornado Drill. Lock your kids in the basement until you give the all clear. You’re welcome!”
- “Day seven at home and the dog is looking at me like, ‘See? This is why I chew the furniture!'”
Did you laugh in spite of yourself? Did you feel better as you laughed? Did you feel guilty as you laughed?
Scientific reasons for laughter
Scientists tell us that we laugh to signal to others that we wish to connect with them. In fact, speakers in a conversation were found to be forty-six percent more likely to laugh than the listeners. Laughing with others is also a way of bonding with them as friends.
According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter benefits us physically in a variety of ways. Laughing can increase our oxygen intake, which in turn stimulates our heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughing also releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals our bodies produce that make us feel happy and can relieve stress and pain.
The act of increasing and then decreasing our heart rate through laughter is calming and tension-relieving. Laughing can even release stress- and illness-reducing neuropeptides, boosting our immune system.
So, it would seem that finding ways to laugh during a crisis like the Civil War or the coronavirus pandemic is good for us socially and medically.
What “is” and what “ought to be”
But in a war that cost as many as 750,000 American soldiers their lives, how could the American president find a justification for humor? In the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than 2,167,000 people and killed more than 146,000 (as of this morning), how can we find a justification for laughter?
Consider another factor. Sociologist Peter Berger identified “signals of transcendence,” dimensions of our lives that point to realities that transcend us. Among them is humor, which Berger defines as the discrepancy between what “is” and what “ought to be.”
We laugh when someone accurately compares our quarantined lives to dogs confined to home, or uses “positive” (such as a positive coronavirus test) to point to something negative, or quotes a dog empathizing with us as we are confined inside.
As we do, something happens inside us that points to something beyond us. We feel a momentary release from the discouragement of these days and a spark of hope beyond them.
A tangible signal of transcendence
My point is not that we should always respond to crisis by finding something humorous in it. There are times when this is precisely the wrong way to react. God’s word teaches us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
My point is that we should respond to crisis by looking for something transcendent in it. If God is timelessly sovereign (cf. Isaiah 46:10; Malachi 3:6), ever present in our lives and world (cf. Matthew 28:20), we can find “signals of transcendence” even in these days of crisis.
Perhaps it’s the person who speaks to you kindly or gives you an unexpected gift. Perhaps it’s the beauty of a spring morning or the sense of God’s peace when you pray.
Make your requests known to your Father and trust that you will receive “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Since love, joy, and peace are “fruit of the Spirit” unconnected to circumstances, ask the Spirit to manifest them in your life and soul (Galatians 5:22).
Then ask him to make you a carrier of such grace to someone else today, a tangible signal of transcendence in their life.
And he will.