In distressing times of pandemics and violence, laughter can alleviate pain

Rajni Bakshi
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Laughter in the face of grim realities arises from an inner core that remains untouched by the vicissitudes of the moment.

“More people die of worry than of natural causes” — this quotation from Mahatma Gandhi can be extended in scope to include fear. At present, fear is as big an enemy as the actual coronavirus that has shut down normal life across the globe. If you are, like most, scrambling to find ways to not catch the coronavirus, please do consider laughing really hard.

Don’t get me wrong. Laughing is not a substitute for basic precautions — the right kind of mask when in public places, exercise, nutritious food and drinks, and, immediate medical attention in case of symptoms. But, the one thing that can build a strong foundation for all these material precautions to build upon is laughter.

This is not about laughing “at” the situation or trivialising the gravity of the epidemic. Please treat this advocacy of laughter in the same spirit in which airlines exhort you to first wear the oxygen mask yourself before trying to assist others. Building your immunity to the virus is very much like putting on the oxygen mask so you can help others.

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Laughter clubs across the world are proof of a widely-held belief about laughing your way to good health or, at least, good mood. Forty years after it was first published, the book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, by Norman Cousins, remains a classic. Cousins, a political journalist, described how he worked with his doctors to make laughter the crucial element of overcoming his life-threatening degenerative disease.

Cousins was not claiming that laughter alone can cure grave illnesses. Instead, he was drawing on his own success to make a case for holistic healing. Whatever laughter may do for your body, it is certainly a powerful counter to fear.

A large number of people who die following a snake bite are killed by fear and shock, not just the venom in their bloodstream. Laughter as an antidote to fear works at two levels. It can serve merely as a distraction and a form of healthy exertion — which is largely what happens in laughter clubs. Far more importantly, it is laughter-as-defiance that counters fear: Be it the fear of an epidemic or a tyrant.

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A hugely popular novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, explores how, from ancient times, those in power have feared laughter. Those who can laugh when confronted by the threats and oppression of a tyrant, somehow rise above the violence inflicted on them.

Laughter in the face of grim realities arises from an inner core that remains untouched by the vicissitudes of the moment. Consider this reality check for Indians at the moment, for example.

Imminent, unpredictable threat of random communal violence: Check. Worsening pains of domestic economic slow-down: Check. Threat of mass deaths due to pandemic: Check. Threat of mass unemployment following global economic meltdown triggered by pandemic: Check. Threat of war in the Middle-East following Saudi crashing of oil price: Check. Threat of extreme weather events wiping out entire cities: Check.

Abject despair would be understandable in these conditions. Except, despair is guaranteed to make you feel worse off. The other option is to see all of the above through the lens of the absurd. For instance, those given to black humour could look at this list and say: “At least a huge meteor won’t crash into earth”.

Being alive to absurdity does two things. It enables us to see the same over-powering circumstances in a much wider frame, thus taking the bite out of what seems threatening. More importantly, locating our own “self” in this much wider context saves us from the hell of fatal self-preoccupation, or even, self-obsession.

What does this mean in practice? For Cousins, it meant watching comedy films from his hospital bed and laughing so loudly that patients in adjoining rooms complained. Maybe they felt left out.

Have fun finding your own way to LOL, or laughing out loud. Let’s make it a defiant laughter that vaporises fear and anxiety.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 23, 2020 under the title “The Case For Laughter.” Bakshi is author of Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi.

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