The death of Barry Humphries leaves many bereft of a special person in their lives, not least in his alter-ego, Dame Edna Everage. Many words are being said about both, as people mourn. Probably the most eloquent obituary is that of Barry Humphries by Dame Edna herself! To hear this read on Radio 3 on Sunday morning was certainly quite a departure from the sound of bells and birds!
What the death reminds us of is the importance of humour and laughter in our lives. As we hear yet more dreadful news from the Sudan it becomes increasingly hard not to despair about what we humans are doing to our planet, to nature and to ourselves. People might well think that there isn’t much to laugh about but even today as snippets of Dame Edna’s contributions to the funny side of life has lifted spirits.
Recently the Jewish people celebrated Purim, which I learned through the writings of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the Jewish Festival of ‘happiness’. In an article he wrote, I also learned a very important truth which drew its strength from the Holocaust.
The Jewish response to trauma is counter-intuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends and to the needy. While the story is being told, you make an unruly noise as if not only to blot out the memory but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.
At the heart of the merrymaking is a challenge. Where a threat is serious there is a refusal to be serious but that leads to a paradox.
The refusal to be serious is a very serious action. As Jonathan Sacks puts it: You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. You face fear with its antidote – Joy! A striking message from the Holocaust is:
They tried to destroy us, We survived. Let’s eat.
Allowing laughter and humour is a way of defeating hate. What you laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.
Psalm 37 expresses a similar view where we read that
“the wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them;
but the Lord laughs at the wicked, he knows their day is coming.” And the righteous can join in the joke.
Similarly, when an audience laughs at a comedian’s jokes, they are participating in the story and feel at one with each other. The popularity of performances by what are known as Stand-up Comics is a sign of how much humour has become a shared cultural experience.
For a short while, people are drawn towards each other, become open and perhaps vulnerable. It becomes a truly shared experience.In a brittle, divisive world, humour becomes a collective antidote and therefore a point and time of healing. Perhaps also of hope.
Not much of this may be obvious. The bottom line of having a good time and a bit of fun is itself a perfectly joyful activity but it has natural and love filled consequence.
Those who remember the magazine Reader’s Digest may recall that it had a maxim, Laughter is the best form of medicine.
Dame Edna knew this, I suspect, and whilst her humour played on the ridiculous and poked fun at the pompous, there was a sense of kindness and of gentle holding people in love. Her humour was never cruel even when it was close the bone. A safe haven was created which brought people closer together and which is why good humour, comedy and happiness are generated in a non-threatening way.
For a time there is a community creating the unity of the occasion.
This community, being in unity, is also at the heart of groups who feel stronger in using humour to face together hatred, war, personal threat and tragedy, as in the response of Jews to the Holocaust, or the Ukrainian people to the evil of Putin.
Solidarity in the face of the world’s pain is also at the heart of the Christian message of hope and love. The foundation of the Christian Church is built on friendship which God, in Jesus, sacrificially showed through loving and sharing love which makes discipleship not a task to perform but a love to be shared. That is what Jesus showed and often it was done through wittiness, joy and sharing food, drink and storytelling. Many of the parables are wonderful, witty stories with punch lines that had people smiling, feeling changed and experiencing ‘penny dropping’ moments, like the show audiences. Jesus, I suspect, was the master of stand-up!
The result of of all this changes people.
Whether it be at the level of what is known as the feel-good factor and which lasts but a short while or whether it be more permanent, life seems better somehow.
Perhaps this becomes more permanent when we recognize that we can become instruments of change.
Desmond Tutu, in his book ‘God has a Dream’, made the point that changed people are people who can be used to make things better. He wrote:
“All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.”
Did Dame Edna or Barry Humphries seek to do that? I like to think so, or if not directly, make it possible to make life not just bearable but enriched, cleansed, re-directed.Can laughter do that?
I think it can and I like to think that, as we say goodbye, we might focus on that wonderful sketch where Dame Edna enters the Royal Box where King (then Prince) Charles and dear Camilla are sitting. As ever she makes (creates?) a fuss but before she has time to settle, an usher arrives and pointedly shows her a ticket which suggests she’s in the wrong place. As she gets up, she turns to Camilla and says, “They’ve found me a better seat!”.
I’d like to think that is exactly what God has done now for Dame Edna and, of course for Barry. I know that there will be laughter.
Here’s a reflective poem by the lovely John O’Donohue,
which says things I have been thinking about, in a very special way.
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.
Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.
As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.
for Equilibrium. A Blessing.