“Do you know where ghosts go on summer vacation? To the Dead Sea, of course.” As we are in the merry season, let’s talk about laughter. We shall not claim a particular attitude on the subject, but we shall provide some food for thought.
Even in ancient times, opinions about laughter differed. Thus, for example, Plato defines ‘expressed joy’ as a manifestation of the material in us and, in this sense, of that which is lower. Aristotle, on the other hand, claims that laughter is something which distinguishes us from the animal kingdom Therefore, he defines it as a mark of intelligence. The matter isn’t unambiguous in Christian theology and tradition either. First, Clement of Alexandria provides the two fundamental standpoints of Greek philosophers, then Basil the Great introduces the critical point of moderation; laughter and joy are good, if moderate. In the Middle Ages, laughter was generally forbidden among the statutes of some of the most popular Catholic orders. On the basis of texts from the New Testament, many theologians argue whether or not it can be assumed that Jesus laughed.
Two different Hebrew words are used for laughter in the New Testament, where one kind is serene, and the other derisive. There is, however, one particularly significant episode in the Bible that, perhaps unbeknownst to us, gives us direction on the subject of laughter. The firstborn son of Abraham, progenitor of Israel and of the main monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), was named Isaac. This word means precisely ‘laughter’. Abraham gains this son in old age as a promise from God. But shortly after, God tells him to sacrifice this very son and Abraham prepares to do so without protest.
Some basic elements of the Law, which Moses gave to Israel bear similarity to this – like sacrificing of the firstborn animals. The word for this, used in the English translation of the Bible, however, is “offering” to God, and it is way more indicative. The idea of the firstborn offering indicates a kind of awareness – that everything we think we have at our disposal is actually not a contribution of ours. And it is not a matter of things, but mainly of qualities. As a whole, this is what the animals symbolize in the Old Testament both in their naming by Adam and in Noah’s Ark. Apparently the same applies to our joy. The hill upon which he is directed to sacrifice his son, but is stopped in the last minute by an angel, Abraham calls “the Lord will provide“.
We are still dualistic beings; we dislike suffering and love joy very much. Many of our passions and fears originate here. And we receive this gift (of joy and laughter) too possessively, and so it contributes to our isolation and separateness from God. But as the texts in the Bible intimate, everything is from God and of God first and we must always be conscious of this.
But there is also a joy which comes from openness, which is the sensation of the fullness of the whole. In a sense, turning the ego’s joy into an anchor point creates a wall against being able to dwell in the joy of life. The two, however, are incomparable. May we all come closer and closer to the bliss of wholeness.