It’s easy to lose perspective of what is most important during the holiday season and why we even celebrate it. I suppose that’s why I keep harking back to the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. There were many lessons in the days of celebrating his life, and one of the most touching for me was the character of his friendships. He was a man who seemed to bring out the very best values in the people closest to him, things like loyalty, humility and fun. I was particularly taken by the eulogies of James Baker and Alan Simpson, longtime work associates and devoted pals who knew President Bush so well that they had long ago eschewed formalities with him.
Alan Simpson delivered a humorous monologue about his relationship with President Bush that spoke to the fun times that the two had shared. It lightened the somber mood and brought laughter into the gathering, something that had obviously appealed to the playful nature of President Bush and served to balance the seriousness of his life’s work. Senator Simpson made me smile as I imagined the two buddies guffawing like a couple of school boys even as they shouldered the weight of the world’s problems. There is something quite intimate about good friends sharing jokes and inside stories that bring merriment. Laughter is one of our most essential human traits as long as it is not tinged with hurtful barbs. It not only heals our souls, but has also been known to assist in making our bodies feel better as well.
I’ve been a fan of Alan Simpson for some time mostly because he reminds me of my husband Mike. Both men manage to find humor wherever they go, and in my own life Mike keeps me laughing even when events threaten to take me down. The two of us not only exchange daily hugs and expressions of love, but rarely allow a day to pass without a hardy guffaw that rumbles from the depths of our bellies. It surely makes things better and keeps our minds young.
It does not surprise me that Mike and Alan Simpson are actually distant relatives joined in their family trees by Burnetts. The mother whom Alan Simpson so lovingly spoke of in his eulogy was a Burnett, and the common ancestor that he and Mike share was a pioneer of Wyoming. The Burnetts are a hardy lot whether they lived in Wyoming or Texas, and I often tell my daughters and grandchildren that they bear the genes of some very tough individuals. Now I know that they also possess a tendency to enjoy a nonstop sense of humor as well.
I sometimes worry that our ability to poke fun at the world is taking a dark turn. Instead of finding delight in humorous situations we tend to focus on making fun of individuals. Jokes are too often used as darts to wound people. Bullies badger the weak with crudeness. The funniest men and women have a way of making us howl without ever purposely hurting or demeaning anyone. Carol Burnett was a genius at bringing such great joy to the world with the simple use of facial expressions and body language. Her show was a kind of curative hour for the nation when it aired each Saturday evening.
I grew up with comedy front and center in my home. I recall my father savoring jokes to relay to his us and to his friends. Evenings at the dinner table were laced with his wry deliveries of the funny things he had seen and heard at work. Our first television always seemed to be tuned to comedic programs featuring geniuses like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. While my Uncle Jack was a western man, my father was pure comedy right down to some of the books that were tucked in his library. I missed his humor when he was gone, and I suppose that it is not an accident at all that I eventually married a man with a similar bent toward outrageous laughter.
We’ve also become a bit Puritanical in our society when it comes to judging humor. So many topics have become taboo that it must be somewhat frightening for comedians to open their mouths. I imagine them being attacked from the right and the left for even a minor slip of the tongue. They have to be more careful than their predecessors which no doubt makes them rather nervous. The odds are rather good that even the most innocent of jokes might offend. We’ve become a rather censorious society in which the only free game seems to be President Trump, a rather easy and boring target because it is so overused.
We need laughter in our midst. Even as a teacher I found the comedians in my classes and instead of punishing them for their outbursts I gave them brief moments on the stage in the hopes that a bit of fun might diminish some of the anxiety that so many have toward mathematics. A bit of hilarity often broke down the emotional barriers that my students brought to class. I was always so grateful to the funny boys and girls who knew how to insert joy into the seriousness of my work. To this very day I appreciate people who have the ability to keep the world from sliding into a valley of moroseness. God bless the comics for they remind us that there is always light even when things seem darkest.