Last week I attended a mediation skills training led by Rev. Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. During one of the sessions, we were given a picture that describes the movement from consensus to division between individuals or within a group of people. Richard was describing how communication starts to break down and how the minds of people gradually move from a state of creative problem-solving into a state of self-preservation as tension rises. Then he said something interesting. He said that a group’s ability to play-to laugh at itself or to step back from an issue and note its humorous dimensions-is key for him to understand the intensity of the conflict.
Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath has said that the first sign that a survivor of sexual abuse is starting to heal is the return of the capacity to play. It is a sign that a person is moving out of a state of constant terror into an easier way of being in the world. The ability to play is a serious indicator of health and wholeness.
When we are full of rage and anger, terror and fear, we lose our ability to play. Grief, trauma, ongoing anxiety, and feeling like we have no power over a given situation are all common things which can ramp up reactions to difficult problems. They are experiences and feelings which can push us into a state of intense anger or chronic terror. They can give us eyes which only see issues and not people. They can give us minds which imagine a world where right and wrong are simply and sharply defined. They can turn our hearts into instruments of stone and wood.
In 2008, I attended part of General Conference in Dallas/Fort Worth. At the end of each of the long days of watching and listening to delegates wrangle issues on the conference center floor, my husband, friends and I would spend an hour or two unwinding by watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. At the time, I kept thinking how awesome it would be to have a United Methodist version of one of these shows: a daily rundown and laugh-in at our own expense. It seemed then, and seems to me now, that we could really use a bit more humor in these times; that, especially as it comes to the issues we care about, we have somehow lost our capacity for play.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character says, “I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.” If you and your community are really hurting right now, if the anxiety level is high, if you are uncertain and worried and not really sure how things will ever turn out all right, I invite you to create some play dates. Start telling some jokes. Host a Holy Humor Sunday, or schedule an all church talent show. Cue up Revenge of the Pink Panther or go to a local night club for an evening of cathartic hilarity. Rent a block of tickets for the big name comedy show coming to town and get a passel of faith family to come along.
Communities who can find a way to laugh together can find ways to work together. People who can laugh together can find ways to love better. Because, living can hurt a lot, and if we don’t find creative and loving ways to make that hurting stop, it is all too easy to turn on each other.
*Today, I write this knowing that one thing I hear over and over from United Methodists in Iowa is that we do not seem to be sitting down together to have serious and important conversations about the issues that matter the most to us. We are feeling silenced, unheard, attacked, belittled, and cast aside. We are afraid that our pew neighbor, our pastor, our District Superintendent, our Bishop, our parents, our children, or our friends will stop loving us if they ever learn who we really are. For some, there is the conviction that there are people within the church who actively seek to do us harm. We are talking in fearful and angry tones, while projecting an image of irreconcilable differences onto the screen of our United Methodist Church.
So, I ask, is there still capacity in our system for play? Do we have room for jokes and pokes? Do we have the ability to look at our own agendas and desires with enough humility to find some humor there? If the answer is no, maybe now would be a good time to invite Rev. Blackburn to Iowa.*