“Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it.” ~ Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 23

Today I am going to talk about nonsense and laughter. The two, you see, often go hand in hand. In fact, one of the reasons nonsense is often viewed as trivial is because it is associated with laughter.

This means two things.

  1. People often underestimate the significance of nonsense.
  2. People often underestimate the power of laughter.

As Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin notes, laughter, like nonsense, allows us to interrogate reality. It allows us to question the “sense” that governs our worlds–to poke fun at our “reason” and to re-examine it in the process.

Laughter, in other words, is serious business.

Take the issue of fear, for instance.

There are many things in life that we are afraid of. New things. Dangerous things. Uncomfortable things. The list of fears is long, and we all take our pick.

And we are pretty good at rationalizing our fears. One of the reasons they are scary is that we have convinced ourselves that there is logic behind them. They make sense to our minds, our hearts, and our bodies, which are shaking with dread.

Given this space in our thoughts and feelings, our fears begin to grow. They grow and grow and grow to the point where they become terrifying giants, blocking our paths to progress.

How do we defeat these giants? How do we move beyond them?

Well, according to Bakhtin, laughing may be our most effective strategy.

Armed with laughter, we can take these strange giants captive, break them open, cut them down–until we see that the fears we think are so reasonable, aren’t that reasonable after all.

The more we laugh about our fears, the less control they have over us. The more familiar we are with them, the more equipped we will be to identify areas where we are particularly vulnerable to irrational thinking and behaviour.

Laughing through fear, we can freely investigate our ideas and emotions. We can question the realities we take for granted, the rules we follow and the power they hold over us.

Life has its share of difficulties. It has its share of uncertainties–of nonsensical situations that frighten us into fearing the future.

But isn’t it great that we have laughter to help us make sense of it all?

I think so.

Fear may be contagious, but laughter is too. Child movie star Shirley Temple helped lighten the loads of millions of viewers as they struggled through the Great Depression. Her laughter lifted people’s spirits.

And yours can too.

The next time you feel a seemingly rational fear stomp its way into your head, don’t forget to test it with some laughter. You might just find that it isn’t so rational after all.

Wishing you some serious laughter this week!

References: Bakhtin, M., & Holoquist, M. (Ed.). (2014). The dialogic imagination (M. Holoquist & C. Emerson, Trans.) Austin,TX: University of Texas Press. (Translation first published in 1981).