Donna Strickland Blog

Is Humor Healing

Joseph Campbell said, “We are here to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” I call my friend up on the phone. She’s been hard to get…distant…running scared. Her mother was buried three weeks ago. “Can you meet me at Dairy Queen? We could get a yogurt. You don’t have to talk. I just want to see the whites of your eyes.” Silence. A deep sigh. “Okay, I’ll meet you there,” she whispers. We meet. We stand in line for what seems like forever, with children laughing all around us. We watch them silently, old friends, Deb and I.

Our eyes glisten. It was only three months ago that the foster child she’d had since birth had been given back to the biological dad. Seems like too much to happen to one woman in such a short amount of time. My heart aches. Within minutes we are seated and my friend begins to talk about her very funny brother who asked the undertaker if he could push his mother’s bosom up just a little from the sides, she would have preferred it that way; and would they be able to get frequent flier miles for flying the body to Colorado from New York? We are laughing hysterically. Laughing until our jaws ache, our sides ache, our hearts ache for our mothers. We are laughing to ease the tension of death, of the chaos it produces, of the absurdities of it all. We laugh to gain perspective, to feel superior, to get some distance from the joy and pain. Is humor healing? In this moment can it be anything else?

The word humor comes from the Latin word “umor” which means to be fluid and flexible, like water. In order to be fluid and flexible, one has to be willing to be a little bit out of control, just enough so you can get this stuff I’m talking about…laughter, spontaneity, creativity, love…but in order to get this stuff one has to be willing to be in the moment. In order to be in the moment, one has to be willing to risk foolishness, risk failure, and risk embarrassment. Because you see, all of this “yummy stuff” — laughter, love, spontaneity usually happens if you are paying attention to the fluidity of the moment. If you are somewhere else…preoccupied with time, or the next patient, or what you are going to do after you read the rest of this article, or what you’ll have for dinner, or if you’ve gotten any calls, then you can’t be here. And here is where the moment is. One of the many things that humor can do for you, is to help you get a fluid spirit. It helps keep your spirit fluid and flexible so that you do not get brittle or broken in times of chaos, change and crisis.

The root of the word “heal” is the Anglo-Saxon word “haelen,” which means to be or to become whole. Healing and health is about harmony of body-mind-spirit as discussed by contemporary writers. A synonym for harmony is connection. Janet Quinn, Ph.D., R.N. eloquently states… “when we talk about wholeness, we are talking fundamentally about relationship, relatedness, and connection. Wholeness, or harmony of body-mind-spirit, may thus be thought of as a dynamic process of being in right relationship. This relatedness is opposite of alienation and fragmentation.”

Humor, or fluid spirit, is about this connectedness with Self, Spirit and others. It causes a shift in perspective that allows one to take one’s self lightly while taking a look at one’s situation or work, seriously. Laughter, the behavioral response to humor, shifts not only brain chemistry, which by itself is healing, but also shifts one’s relationship to one’s self. “When true healing occurs, relationship is reestablished — relationship to and within self, to others, with one’s own purpose.”

Humor helps you get latitude in your attitude so that you can stay fluid and flexible in changing chaotic times. So is humor only about ho-ho’s and ha-ha’s? I don’t think so. Laughter is a real important piece of the wellness pie; however, it is not the only key. Deep profound connections to others, speaking the truth about one’s experience, finding ways to have others witness your experience and “Your Story” are keys. These keys can be found in a humor contextual framework that is experienced at a deeper, more profound healing level.

Through participation in “Laughing Spirit Listening Circles” or “Healing Circles,” healthcare professionals learn how to create a “temenos” or sanctuary, a safe place to tell the truth about our own perceptions, thoughts, experiences and feelings. The absence of a vertical hierarchy in group circles facilitates the uniting of mind and thinking with heart and feeling. Each person represents himself and a part of every other person there as well.

Personal experience is the way to learn about the powerful healing energy that is inherent in the use of humor skills. When we as care givers have this understanding, we can then teach our clients to explore questions such as: what keeps you fluid and flexible, what stops you, what is your path, why are you here, what do you need to do, say, and feel so that your life is increasingly filled with joy, zest and fun? Taking risks is required-being willing to let go of control, be in the moment, and be willing not to know the way.

Humor is most effective when it is part of the caring-healing consciousness between two persons. It then becomes larger than the two, transcendent in nature. When a humorous “mutual connectedness” interaction occurs between two persons this could be termed a “healing moment” or a “caring moment.”

Several years ago, I had been traveling and teaching for about a week, was tired, missed my family and was off balance. On my way out of a hospital a nurse on the inpatient hospice unit ran up to me and in a desperate voice asked me to visit a dying man before leaving. This man, Jeff, had been asking to talk to someone about death, grief and some unfinished business. I explained that I was on my way to the airport, was extraordinarily tired, and what could I talk to him about anyway?

“Death” she said. Reluctantly, I agreed. Entering Jeff’s room I became acutely aware that death lurked there. Jeff at 77 years of age, was about 6’2″ and 90 lbs. I freaked, having never seen anyone so thin. Too late to turn back, I approached the bedside. I reached my hand out to shake his hand and introduced myself.

“Hi there, my name’s Donna Strickland. The nurse said you wanted to talk about death.” I smiled stupidly and ashamedly at what I blurted out. He was looking up at me with the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, holding on to my hand with the sweetest most gentle kind of energy. I noticed in this moment that he had more life in him than I did.

“Last week I was concerned about death. I’m not any more. But you, young lady, you look like you’ve had a really bad day. Why don’t you sit down, put your feet up and let me tell you my favorite joke?”

My eyes began to swell with tears. I apologized for how I’d entered his room and said, “I can’t, I really must go, I’m in a hurry, I’m going to miss my flight. I really am sorry, I have no business being in here.” And while still holding my hand, he looked at me dead center and said, “Don’t you know? There’s more to life than making it go faster.” I didn’t know.

I sat down. Tears streamed down my face. Tears began filling his eyes. There was a silence that seemed to last years, followed by grace that filled up my heart and soul. There was a sense of timelessness, boundarylessness. Grace, I call it; just simply Grace. We watched each other quietly.

He broke the silence with his favorite joke. We laughed as if it were truly the best and finest joke either he or I had ever heard. And we cried as if there were no tomorrow. Eventually I said goodbye. Thank you. You’ll never know. “I know,” he said looking at me intently “and remember now, young lady, there’s more to life than making it go faster.” Leaving his room, feeling so warmed and loved by Spirit, I knew that I had been given one of those rare gifts of a lifetime.

This man, this angel man, knew on some unconscious intuitive level my core issue…this business of going too fast. As the years have passed, I have often recalled his words, his eyes, our laughter, the feeling of grace in the room. They have been a source of strength for me. This was truly one of those “healing and caring moments” of my life. I was in a “dark night of the soul” state. This man’s statement and laughter allowed me an experience of enlightenment and subsequent healing.

Dr Jean Watson, a nursing scientist, offers a hopeful paradigm for the future of health care. Caring, as a moral idea, is posited as an end unto itself. In the above story “the energy fields of the two people come together and a new field of caring is produced which is greater than either one of their persons.”

The humorous and poignant interaction with this man touched my “human center,” my Soul. The exchange that took place between the two of us called attention to information about myself that I heard from a different angle, a different perspective, a different voice. I made, and am making, life changes based on this heard information that has tipped my life upside down. Had these changes not been made, I would have lost the things that mattered most to me in life because I was going too fast and could not slow down. It is from this very personal and deep place, I submit, that humorous interactions that occur in the lived moment of nursing and human caring are healing.

Laughter, like crying, is a form of catharsis. It can relieve stress, anxiety and tension as well as serve as an acceptable outlet for hostility and anger. Nietzsche said, “Man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter.” Laughter allows us to get in touch with our feelings by directly addressing them, letting them flow through us, then letting them go.

Laughter is healing on a cellular level. A 1989 study found that “the mirthful laughter experience appears to reduce serum levels of cortisol, dopamine, epinephrine, and growth hormones. These biochemical changes have implications for the reversal of neuroendocrine and classical stress hormone response.” A 1988 study by the same group found that laughter…increased the spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis and the natural killer cell activity.” Since the immune system shares many of the same chemical message receptors as nerve cells, laughter helps decrease the physical effect of stress by “producing hormone-like substances recently thought to be manufactured only in the brain.”

Laughter also releases adrenaline, endorphins and enkephalins, all natural pain killers. A several minute interval of laughter increases the heart rate, produces the contractional/relaxation pattern of the muscles and the blood vessels, the lungs pump out carbon dioxide, and the eyes cleanse themselves. Just the simple act of laughing releases chemicals in the body that are natural pain killers. Muscle tension melts. Stress surrenders. Spirits are renewed. Humor soothes the soul, increases one’s awareness of Self, helps one to self-regulate, shifts energy intrapsychically and interpersonally.

Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic, uses the word “viriditas” as a synonym of blessing for fruitfulness and creativity. For her, salvation or healing was “the return of greening power and moistness.” Theologian Matthew Fox writes: “Hildegard contrasts greening power or wetness with the sin of drying up. A dried-up person and dried-up culture lose their ability to create.” Powerful life force is associated with one’s ability to be fluid in spirit, able to express one’s emotional life with laughter and tears. “Our bodies express authentic feelings through moisture: tears of happiness or grief flow, or we laugh so much that our eyes tear up, or our eyes become moist when certain emotions are touched or memories are recalled.” Humor and healing are about fluidity, intensity, involvement and fullness.

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