by Allen Klein, MA, CSP
The poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote,
“the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”
Comics know how true this is. A number of well-known comedians experienced a tragic childhood and turned their grief into humor.
Charlie Chaplin, for example, was five years old when his father died of alcoholism. Soon after that his mother went insane and no longer recognized her own son. Some of the other comedians who turned tears to laughter were Carol Burnett, Joe E. Brown, Jackie Gleason and Art Buchwald.
Research has also shown that there is a close connection between the tears of sorrow and the tears of joy.
Dr. William Frey II, a biochemist from Minnesota, has found that emotional tears contain a greater concentration of protein than tears that are produced by other means, such as those that occur when cutting an onion. (An odd bit of Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not here—Dr. William Frey II is a leading expert on tears; Dr. William Fry, Jr., a former professor at Stanford University, is a world renowned expert on laughter. There is cosmic comedy after all!!)
Frey (the crying expert) believes that tears resulting from sadness play an important part in removing harmful toxins that are produced by stress. He speculates that the tears produced by laughter serve the same function as the tears of sorrow.
In other words, laughter’s tears may also carry away harmful toxins from the body, and the suppression of them, as in the suppression of emotional tears, increases our susceptibility to stress-related disorders.
In spite of the connections between laughter and tears, I believe that there is a major difference. Laughter helps us transcend our suffering; crying does not.
Tears of sadness turn us inward; we cry and feel sorry for ourselves. Laughter, on the other hand, focuses us outward. Laughter expands our vision and gives us a new way of seeing our situation. Author Helmuth Plessner notes “The laughing person is open to the world.” The crying person, on the other hand, only sees his world, his suffering. Perhaps this is why one Yiddish proverb tells us: “laughter can be heard farther than weeping.”
Tears of sorrow focus only on one aspect of our loss, our pain. They emphasize the seriousness of the situation, bind us to our suffering, and narrow our vision.
On the other hand, when we can allow some humor to be part of our pain, we are not as directly involved in our suffering. It is as if we put on someone else’s glasses to view our situation. Everything seems familiar, but there is a slightly different look to the picture.
It is not that our pain itself has diminished; it’s just that space around it has gotten bigger. Any animal confined to a small area will eventually become agitated and restless. It will bray, kick and try to tear down the fence. Expand the fence, and it will be content. One Zen master advised, “To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him.” So to ease a loss, try making the fence bigger with laughter, not with tears.
©Allen Klein, 2012
About the author: Allen Klein was our guest expert as part of our free “Getting Past What Holds You Back” series of inspirational conversations. He spoke about Getting Past Loss. You can find out more about this series at www.ThisTimeIMeanIt.com/register To download the recordings, go here.
Award-winning professional speaker, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, Certified Speaking Professional from the National Speaker’s Association. Author of 17 books including, The Healing Power of Humor, The Courage to Laugh, Inspiration for a Lifetime, Change Your Life!: A Little Book of Big Ideas, Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying, and the audiobook TeacherLaughs. (You can find his books at http://www.allenklein.com/books.htm) He is also a writer for Examiner.com.