Just five days after the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, still the deadliest day in American history with more than 22,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, President Abraham Lincoln summoned his cabinet to a hastily called meeting at the White House. Speculation ran rampant. What big and sobering news was the nation’s chief executive going to share? Quietly and nervously the team assembled, awaiting Mr. Lincoln’s arrival.
The president warmly greeted those gathered – and then proceeded to tell a long and humor-laden story, the details growing more ridiculous by the moment. The mood in the room lightened. Laughter rang out. You could almost hear a collective exhale.
The story complete, Lincoln then turned a corner, announcing the reason for the meeting: He had decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that coming January, the historic executive action that would free all slaves in the southern states.
It was a heavy moment – but Abraham Lincoln had decided to begin it with humor. When someone had asked the president how he could tell a joke during such a difficult time, he replied, “If I didn’t do this, I’d probably go crazy!”
Tough times call for sober-minded resolve – but a little laughter tossed in for good measure has been known to make the terrible a little more tolerable.
Few would quibble with the fact that America is currently embroiled in a challenging season. All sectors of society are being stretched and strained. Families are struggling physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Both domestic and international tensions are real – and the current political climate is a powder keg.
Which is why now, more than ever, we need to laugh.
“I have seen what a laugh can do,” once remarked the comedian Bob Hope, who was known to entertain military troops in war zones. “It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.”
The late Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame, reflected, “I can think of no better way of redeeming this tragic world today than love and laughter. Too many of the young have forgotten how to laugh, and too many of the elders have forgotten how to love. Would not our lives be lightened if only we could all learn to laugh more easily at ourselves and to love one another?”
Fr. Hesburgh is making a good point – and distinction. So much of the so-called “humor” today is crass and poisonous, making fun rather than having fun.
Pastor Chuck Swindoll, the founder and host of Insight for Living, says someone once told him, “You know, you have a great sense of humor – but you’re always laughing at someone else’s expense.” Swindoll was convicted and made changes. He’s no longer reluctant to make fun of himself.
Adam Ford started the Babylon Bee after observing the lack of Christian comedy and satire. Seth Dillon, who purchased the Bee in 2018, suggests the website’s meteoric rise and success are due to a hunger for laughter – and humor that’s tethered to truth. He says the most common complaint he hears from people is that something isn’t funny – because nothing about it is true.
But society’s corrupted understanding of humor, and the delicate balance between good humor and satire containing elements of truth, were revealed when sites like Snopes and the Washington Post began fact-checking the Babylon Bee. They seemed to miss the memo. After all, the site’s tagline is, “Fake News You Can Trust.” The joke was on the fact-checkers.
My favorite teacher growing up was Russ Josephs. In his late 20s, “Mr. Russ” drove a dilapidated 1974 blue Ford Pinto. The floorboards were rotted out and at red lights you could see him tapping his foot on the pavement, keeping beat with the music on the radio. He had a white hobby horse strapped to the roof, and he had taped a message on the back window: “Warning! Exploding Gas Tank!” — a wry nod to Ford’s infamous engineering malfunction.
We all loved Mr. Russ. In a school staffed primarily by clergy, he stood out in more ways than one. His physical education and health classes were great fun and he was constantly cracking jokes. He once convinced us that he had a wife and three kids — but we later found out the pictures he was showing as proof had come with his new wallet.
Scripture confirms it: “There’s a time to laugh” (Ecc. 3:4), and like Lincoln, it’s safe to say we’d be wise to sprinkle in more humor throughout our day given all the heartbreak and heartache we’re simultaneously enduring.