There are two kinds of humor, it seems to me. One is based on the use of power - mocking someone for shortcomings or inabilities. This is laughing at someone. The other is based on love - celebrating the general joy and goofiness that comes with being human. This is laughing with someone.
One kind of humor hurts and separates us. The other heals and connects us. Because humor can heal and connect, the laughter it brings can help us when we are sick or injured.
For many people faced with a severe injury or illness, laughter might seem counterintuitive. What's funny about being injured or ill? Of course the fact of being injured or ill is not funny. To laugh at someone who is disabled by injury or who is ill is the laughter that hurts - the mocking kind. Laughing at someone isolates them and separates them from us.
We would not choose to isolate a person who needs our help. We would not laugh at them. But we don't need to be solemn either. Even in the midst of our concern and care for someone we don't have to dismiss humor altogether. We can open our hearts to find the loving humor that is always around us.
My older son has a wonderful sense of humor. What a gift to me that was when I was profoundly injured. I already felt so isolated by the injury that I could not imagine anything being funny, but he knew better. He knew that life always has the potential for joyous, loving humor if we look for it. There are funny things everywhere.
Every time he came to visit me he would find a way to help me laugh. And when he could not be there himself my son left me things that were funny. One of my favorites was a little tape player with a series of tapes. Some of the tapes were serious stories of inspiration. They were helpful in another way. But some of the tapes were recordings of Bill Bryson reading his books and Bryson's books are, for my particular sense of humor, hilarious. I could not help but laugh when I listened to them. I would be sitting in my wheelchair listening to Bill Bryson and giggling when the nurses came to see me. Their looks of amazement at my laughter brought even more laughter.
The more I laughed the more I was reminded that I could find ways to enjoy life no matter what. I was already injured. What good would it do me to keep on mulling over my misery? I would not get better thinking about how miserable I was. When I laughed - when I let the enjoyment of life in - everything became easier. As my mood lightened, my ability to concentrate on the actions I could take to help myself heal improved. As I laughed, even my ability to breathe improved.
I talk with patients in hospitals and rehabilitation centers on a regular basis. Many of them will tell me that hospitals can be very funny places. I met a person on a recent evening who was recovering from a stroke. As we talked, he proceeded to break into peals of laughter talking about his attempts to do one of the rehab exercises. This man had a sense of humor that was infectious. Pretty soon he had the whole group laughing and telling stories. How much easier it was for all of them to go back to their exercises the following day having given themselves permission to relax and find the humor in what they were doing. They still had to do the exercises but having lightened up, they were actually able to bring more energy and focused attention to what they were attempting.
People look at me today and think I am one hundred percent healed. I'm not. From time to time I still have issues with unpredictable coordination when I am walking - sometimes the lack of coordination is more pronounced than others. Some days I occasionally bump into walls when I walk - not hard enough to hurt - just a misstep of my foot. When I do, I have a choice: I can get grumpy and complain or I can laugh at the total absurdity of the situation. Being grumpy is not going to help me either stop walking into walls or get on with my life, so instead I choose to laugh and through the laughter to connect to life. It's a lot more fun.