The Laugh

She is here.  I don’t see her yet.  I’m late – meetings, then a wayward student, then parents. The babysitter and kids are absent, delighting in our absence. But she is present. Above the talk of the gathered party rises the laugh. Immediately she is present to me — the sudden thrust back of the head followed by buckling in two, the lips wide apart, the spreading waves of jubilation baptizing the crowd. Several faces turn toward the sound and smile. They hear the laugh, and I know she is present to them too. We share the unseen presence.

I’m in a superior’s office, one of the folk that work at “corporate.” Several folk are in the room, a casual end of day conversation before we make our way home. Something is said, I don’t remember what, and I laugh. Another man appears in the room. He says, “I was just going to send you an email, but then I heard your laugh, and I thought, why email when I can ask my question in person?” I am here, in person.

The laugh is a signature. It marks us, gives a beacon to others. The laugh is so often out of our control, and yet says so much about us. In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein says that the body is the perfect image of the soul. Though I’m not an expert, this seems to mean something like this: The laugh (as an example) is an image of the soul. We laugh at things that we find funny, at moments of delight or moments of the grotesque. What we laugh at says something about us, about who we are.

I find I shock people sometimes with my laugh. They are explaining something tragic or bitterly ironic — and I laugh. It doesn’t help to say, I’m laughing at the bitter irony, at the absurdity. They are still offended. Further, I know people who don’t laugh, or only rarely. Their eyes will twinkle at a particularly well made joke, and they will say, “That’s funny.” But they don’t laugh. Indeed, I even know people who laugh at cruelty, at the delight in seeing others suffer. What we laugh at says a lot about us.  

So too does how we laugh. My experience is that most people have several kinds. It’s hard for me to categorize mine, but I’ll do my best. I have the slightly surprised single “heh” combined with a puff from the nostrils. I have the 3x “heh, heh, heh” declining in pitch. Very funny moments will get seven or eight of those. I know I’ve cried in laughter and been unable to stop, but that hasn’t happened much recently. Each of these laughs has a quality, a moral meaning. Maybe this point is easier to see in others than in ourselves. We all know the ironic laugh, the awkward laugh, the innocent laugh of delight, the laugh of joy in wickedness, and the pure exultation of the spirit.  

Our bodies, these physical manifestations of ourselves, are the perfect expressions of who we are. We are embodied, and this embodiment expresses us and is us. All laughter is personal.  But not all people are good.

Compare the following:

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
 
— Genesis 18:9-12

Sarah’s laugh was an expression of her barrenness in body and spirit.

Sam lay back, and started with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last has gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
 
‘A great shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.
 
‘How do I feel?’ he cried. ‘Well I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel’ – he waved his arms in the air – ‘I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!’ 
 
— The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

May our laughter be always joyful.

Mike Austin