In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First, I covered the importance of finding your funny. Next, we talked about how to use that sense of humor to get you where you want to be (and away from where you don’t!). I’m going to close the series with the most difficult part: laughing when it seems like you should be crying, and why it’s important.
My mother and I were in the pre-op area, waiting for my father to be wheeled into surgery to remove his prostate, and we were laughing. Somehow, despite the gravity of the situation and the fear that each of us held tightly, we were laughing.
A bit of background: the Marfos are gigglers. My father has this Beldingesque bray that he does when something funny catches him off guard. My mother tries to hide inopportune giggles behind a tooth-hissing, near silent shake, but she never succeeds. And my sister and I have had marathon laughing bouts triggered by the simplest things (most notably, the discovery that the basketball team in Denver is called the Nuggets).That was literally a forty-five minute laughing session in the mid-nineties that I’m convinced extended my life.
But these laughs didn’t always come easily. I’ve spoken previously about my struggles with anxiety, a condition that convinces you life isn’t funny and never will be again. We have had struggles in the family with poor health, death, poverty, depression, and other things that, simply put, aren’t funny. The most recent test to our sense of humor was my father’s February diagnosis of prostate cancer. For someone who’s major anxiety trigger was something grave happening to her father…well, let’s just say that laughing wasn’t my default move. Panicking, retreating to my own space, crying, and worrying came far more naturally. But by June I had assuaged some of my fears by committing to being there for the surgery and helping my mom during the first stages of his recovery.
So let’s return to pre-op, where my mother had agreed to just be the patient’s wife for the day, and not a fellow medical professional (she’s a registered nurse by training). As the anesthesiologist spoke, she listened intently. But then, she slipped. Routine seemed to take over as she asked, “What’s his Gleason score?” I don’t remember what the Gleason score is, and it doesn’t really matter, except that it’s not a term that most people know. The doctor stopped, turned to her, and asked, “How do you know that?”
Without missing a beat, my mother, the more composed of my parents, said “I Googled it.”
I couldn’t help myself. I shot a glance at my dad and we started quietly giggling. My mom quickly explained that she was a nurse, and they finished the conversation and examination.
After she left, it got funnier. Mom immediately turned to Dad, and said, “Googled it was funny, right? Should I have said YouTube?”
Dad: YouTube would have worked, but I think this was fine.
My parents were workshopping a joke moments before my father rolled into surgery. If that doesn’t convince you that laughter can get you through the hard times, I don’t know what will.
But the fact of the matter is, “We laugh so we don’t cry” is a viable statement that has gotten people through a great many hard times. Srdja Popovic talks about creating a comical political statement in Yugoslavia as a means of showing the government its people couldn’t be broken. Finding the funny in scary or anxiety-provoking moments has proven to be among the most effective ways for me to live in a world that constantly sets me on edge. Hell, I’m writing near a window that reveals to me that it is snowing in Boston. Again. In late March. That has to be hilarious, or else it would make this Florida girl sob uncontrollably. And thanks to Hunter “Patch” Adams (and, to an extent, Robin Williams), the world knows humor to be part of a viable approach to medicine, one that I saw later in my father’s hospital stay.
As far as anyone in the hospital that day was concerned, my father was a winner. His prostate was the biggest one removed that day, which became a running joke with all the doctors and nurses that came to visit him (“you won!”). When he was told the precise mass of it (again, don’t remember- long day), I remember a previously groggy man unable to focus his eyes straightening, turning to my mom, and saying without missing a beat, “I knew I felt skinnier!”
I’m proud of my parents for a number of reasons. They both immigrated from Ghana after making an education a priority to Canada. They navigated North America on their own, making friends and creating two children along the way. They are hardworking, kind, responsible, and brilliant, and ensured that my sister and I grew up the same. They are also two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, and raised us to remember that laughing was important. It keeps you young (ask anyone who’s met my mom- she is aging beautifully!), it keeps you sharp, and it makes life easier to navigate. Reflective writing doesn’t come easily to me, and I knew this piece was going to be the hardest to talk/write about, but I also knew that the laughs that would come in the process would be worth it. And in the end, that’s what it’s about. Just as Marcel the Shell smiles because it’s worth it, I encourage people to try to laugh as often as possible even when it’s hard- especially when it’s hard- because it’s worth it.
I’ll end this post as I ended my talk- with the final words of Peter McGraw’s The Humor Code. A tale of a Colorado professor who traveled the world for a year trying to find out the “anatomy” of a joke and what makes things funny, he ultimately landed on this sentiment/my new life motto:
Surround yourself with the people and things that make you laugh. Seek out interesting places and interesting people. Focus on the friends that make you laugh, not the ones who bring you down. Choose as a partner someone with whom you share a sense of humor, someone who helps you see the lighter side of life […] And maybe it’s cliched, but remind yourself that everything is going to be okay. That thing that seems so scary in the moment, so catastrophic and worrisome, is only scary because you’re paying so much attention to it. It’s okay to complain, but add a bit of wit to your grumbling.
UPDATE: It’s here! Watch the talk in full here: