THE BLOG

Face It: A Good Laugh Can Go a Long Way

09/15/2010 01:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I ran into two old friends recently, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. The cities may have been far apart but the circumstances were not. I met both while waiting for medications at the pharmacy. No, this is not a piece about the prescription line being the new social networking site. It is more about being able to laugh amid the new realities of midlife and beyond.

On the first of these boomer versions of meeting cute, Ed -- whom I hadn't seen in at least two years -- was quick to point out that he was picking something up for his ailing mother-in-law. I just as quickly noted that I was getting an antibiotic for my son's young friend. It turns out, we were both telling the truth, but on the second occasion, there were no excuses. In that instance, Ted was awaiting some sleeping aid and I my monthly calcium boost. When I commented on the irony of the situation, Ted remained dour and frankly, clueless. Off he went, with his dog, looking older and grayer than his years.

Where we tend to run into people may have changed, but one thing has not: the ability and pressing need to laugh. Norman Cousins and others have written entire books on how humor can heal, so no big news here. But as we face more and more casualties and crisis that are necessarily part of growing older, release can bring relief. I thought I'd never get one close friend, who picked up a strange virus this past summer, to find a way back to laughter. Especially when the virus led to a paralyzed vocal cord. As a psychologist, she said, this was terribly inconvenient. I countered that all she had to utter were short phrases like "leave him" or "time's up." My almost voiceless friend found herself momentarily smiling.

When I look back on this past summer -- during which I attended four funerals and a wedding -- I remember not the tears but the laughter. The memorable memorials usually are the ones that capture a person's idiosyncrasies and face it, these are very often funny. Then there are times when the brutally honest can become accidentally hilarious. My friend the Rabbi recalls one service where no one wanted to say anything about the (obviously unpopular) deceased. When he asked one more time if there wasn't someone who had something to offer, one man rose timidly and muttered, "okay, his brother was worse." The Rabbi claims the proceedings lightened considerably.

The examples multiply. One good friend spent four weeks earlier this year in an induced coma. Not only has he made a remarkable recovery, but his humor is intact and possibly sharper than ever. "Hey, I was in a coma!" has become his mantra for any memory lapse.

In sports too, laughter helps. In the recent U.S. Open tennis tournament, top seed Caroline Wozniacki was labeled Miss Sunshine for her physical goldenness. She hit the ball ridiculously hard, but the moment that was replayed over and over was when she took a pratfall during one match and then burst into laughter. She will forever be Miss Sunshine for that moment of self mockery. Likewise, Novak Djokovic, a rather cranky and controversial fellow, has earned some love from initially hostile crowds with his very funny and accurate impersonations.

Which brings me back to Ed, who I ran into in that first prescription line. Ed was always a witty guy and has been involved with the world of improvisational theatre since his college days in Chicago. As we stood waiting for our pills and such, he told me he had just started a nonprofit called Laughter For A Change, which is seeking ways to bring humor to places where it is in short supply. This could mean local schools in impoverished districts or suffering countries like Rwanda. "What we do at Laughter For a Change is primarily an active and playful examination of how and why people communicate and what they discover in the process," explained Ed. "Laughter that in its own profound and silly way brings us together, changes us, makes us better."

Those words mesh perfectly with an exhibit on politics and entertainers that I recently visited at the Library of Congress in Washington. I found myself laughing out loud listening to people from Hope to Colbert. They and so many other brave folks have consistently attempted to make us feel momentarily better. When someone once asked Neil Simon where the phrase "stand up comedy" came from, Simon responded, "I imagine it had something to do with the absence of chairs." All kidding aside -- and I hope it never is -- it's for those who continue to rise and fear a world with the absence of humor.