Laughter Is Really Serious

A long time ago when someone was interested in possibly joining our ministry here, our team compiled a list of what we thought were missionary “essentials” in order for our team to work well. If you wanted to join our team, we hoped that you would agree with these essentials and have them in your own life. Since then, I’ve sometimes thought of other “essentials,” or at least, good-to-haves. I thought I’d share them with you when the mood strikes.

So what makes a good missionary?

One of the original points on the list was a sense of humor. We were not made to carry the gravity of the most serious task in the world without a break of merriment. Steel can only be stressed so long and so hard. Now this point does not require that you would be expected to perform extemporaneous stand-up comedian routines, but can you recognize humor and have an appropriate sense of humor?

This is actually an important issue in team ministry. What we laugh about says a lot about us. Likewise, what a culture in general finds funny communicates their worldview and character. So in a mission team, when there is only one other person or couple in your large area who understands both your home culture and your host culture, it can be extremely frustrating if the teammate laughs at things that you deem un-funny, or highly disappointing if they don’t see the humor in something you find obviously hilarious. In fact, we can get very angry about what others laugh at or don’t laugh at.

You won’t be sorry if you read this very long quote that says this much better than I can:

…I propose to cut through it by considering one of the raw materials from which culture is built, namely laughter. All rational beings laugh–and maybe only rational beings laugh. And all rational beings benefit from laughing. As a result there has emerged a peculiar human institution–that of the joke, the repeatable performance in words or gestures that is designed as an object of laughter.

Now there is a great difficulty in saying exactly what laughter is. It is not just a sound….Nor is it just a thought, like the thought of some object as incongruous. It is a response to something, which also involves a judgment of that thing. Moreover, it is not an individual peculiarity….Laughter is an expression of amusement. Laughter begins as a collective condition, as when children giggle together over some absurdity. And in adulthood amusement remains one of the ways in which human beings enjoy each other’s company, become reconciled to their differences, and accept their common lot. Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair.

That does not mean that laughter is subjective in the sense that “anything goes,” or that it is uncritical of its object. On the contrary, jokes are the object of fierce disputes, and many are dismissed as “not funny,” “in bad taste,” “offensive,” and so on. The habit of laughing at things is not detachable from the habit of judging things to be worthy of laughter. Indeed, amusement, although a spontaneous outflow of social emotion, is also the most frequently practiced form of judgment. To laugh at something is already to judge it, and when we refrain from laughing at what someone nevertheless believes to be funny, we may thereby show our disapproval of that person’s stance.

~Roger Scruton in Culture Counts, pgs. 6-7

When stressful events rain down all at once like it’s trial monsoon season or it seems like your life is an all-too-frequent example of Murphy’s Law (we had nine machines break in a short period of time one year–car, fridge, stove blew up, etc.), sometimes you have to crack a sarcastic joke about it.

When you’re going nuts because of some element of the host culture that you’re not used to or even think is rude, sometimes it is cathartic to laugh with your teammates until the tears come to your eyes at the unexpectedness of this or that happening. Just keeps you sane sometimes and helps to release the anger or bitterness that shouldn’t be there.

Those are examples of how you might laugh at events out of your control, such as elements of your host culture. But being able to laugh at yourself is perhaps even more important. Isn’t that really an element of humility? To be able to laugh at yourself when you make a language mistake or harmless cultural gaffe or have a most embarrassing moment on furlough, etc., is very important as well. Be humble, and laugh at yourself.

I was embarrassed to see this proof of my failure to tie my baby to my back African style that my teammates took of me while I was keeping score at a Bible Quiz tournament. But it WAS funny!

I was embarrassed to see this proof of my failure to tie my baby to my back African style that my teammates took of me while I was keeping score at a Bible Quiz tournament. But it WAS funny!

Seth has tried before to pin down what people may universally find funny, and he came up with this: “Connecting two things in an unexpected way.” You weren’t expecting those two ideas to be put together like that. Let me give you one example recently that our team found funny in our host culture because it was unexpected. There is danger in giving examples because someone may miss my main point in shooting down the example, but here goes:

Recently our team laughed until there were tears in our eyes over someone’s account and imitation of a song blared at his house. Here is an event that frustrated the missionary couple: neighbors 20 meters away put up 4-foot high speakers and blared an inane, offensive song so loudly in the direction of their house that the speakers went staticky; and this continued for hours, including the kids’ naptimes. (I’m sure this is a common issue for missionaries, not only in Africa.) Now, this is actually a very frustrating occurrence, and we began by expressing our sympathy for them. The funny part was when the narrator told us, and then imitated, what was in the song: belching.

Completely unexpected. Songs and belching don’t go together. Add to that volume. These Africans liked this music so much, they wanted it to be heard loudly by everyone! Who produces this music??? It’s just…funny.

Now some people at this point may object. “You’re judging their culture. You’re laughing at them!” Our politically correct culture doesn’t like to laugh at other people’s cultures. But as that quote above begins to express, we are making judgments all the time in what we laugh at. Every culture does this. Some things shouldn’t or can’t be laughed about. For example, when someone is hurt or when something is sinful, we shouldn’t laugh at those things. Some people have a cutting sense of humor that only makes fun of others in a belittling or demeaning way. That’s inappropriate. But some things can and should be laughed at.

And that brings me to the next objection: “Are you saying someone shouldn’t be a missionary if they don’t have a sense of humor? What if they just don’t have the same sense of humor as you?” Exactly. This is the issue.

It isn’t enough to say that the teammate must have a sense of humor. Even though we may judge another person with the statement, “He doesn’t have a sense of humor,” what we mean is, “He doesn’t appreciate my sense of humor.” Or “I don’t appreciate his sense of humor.” So that is the key. Can that teammate laugh at things that you deem important to laugh at? Can she laugh at herself? Can you laugh together over similar things without one squirming with discomfort or another blankly staring in misunderstanding?

Remember that excellent quote above: “And in adulthood amusement remains one of the ways in which human beings enjoy each other’s company, become reconciled to their differences, and accept their common lot. Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair.”

Yes, some things shouldn’t be laughed at. But on the other hand, “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

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About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and mother of four children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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3 Responses to Laughter Is Really Serious

  1. I can’t wait to laugh with you! We always laughed at the same things. Humor is necessary, and sometimes we get too serious for our own good.

  2. Mandy says:

    Excellent. It made me laugh. LOL

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