Embracing Humor to Build Community

Students laughing together

Think of the last time you laughed.

You may surprise yourself by recalling your laughter wasn’t during a funny moment at all. Though we always associate laughter with humor, we laugh when we’re exhausted, when we’re nervous, when we’re crying. It’s a gesture that, when dissected, isn’t so simple.

Saint Mary’s associate professor of religious studies Anita Houck has long recognized the complexity of laughter and its substantial power to unite us.

“Laughter creates, expresses, and shapes how people engage with each other. Laughter is also a social lubricant and helps to break the ice. People use laughter to bond with each other, but they also use it to exclude others, and they do both within and across community boundaries, and for all kinds of reasons,” Houck said.

Further, when we laugh at jokes, we laugh because the joke is built on shared knowledge. The joke may even be offensive or exclusionary and still we stifle a laugh. In wrestling with the difficult question of how to deal with humor, Houck turns to the work of philosopher Ted Cohen. In his book Jokes, Cohen draws attention to humor and its complexity. Instead of denying something is funny, we are better served to “try remaking the world so that such jokes will have no place, will not arise,” Cohen says. The unjust assumptions we have about others will no longer be part of our shared cultural knowledge, and jokes that are based on them will no longer be funny.

"Self-deprecating humor can help us not take ourselves too seriously."

When Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, came to Saint Mary’s several years ago, Houck recalls that she was able to trade jokes with Dowling over dinner.

“It was wonderful. He told two jokes in particular that were pretty elaborate and really lovely — and both were at the expense of bishops. Self-deprecating humor can help us not take ourselves too seriously,” she said. “It can signal to others that we don’t want to exploit our power over them, even if we have it; instead, we want to be in a healthy relationship of understanding.”

Laughter’s relational nature allowed Houck to draw the connection between human laughter and Christian theology, thus forming the ideas behind a new course, Spirituality and Comedy. Christian spirituality has often been thought of as “anti-laughter,” deeming the gesture inappropriate for sinners.

“In Luke, Jesus even says, ‘Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep.’ At the same time, anyone who welcomed children had to know how to laugh! And when Jesus promises, ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh,’ laughter seems to symbolize the reign of God, in all its justice and joy,” Houck quipped.

Students in her class discover the ways laughter can teach us about one another and ourselves, exposing our deep commonalities and our diversity. Houck said current research suggests that laughter has served humans since ancient times in creating bonds with others.

“Using laughter virtuously, even lovingly, requires what every other social interaction requires: the humility to realize not everyone sees the world as we do; the commitment to do our best, and when we fail, to seek forgiveness; and the willingness to use our gifts to serve others.”


Article reprinted from Courier, Spring 2017. Read other articles or download full issues online at saintmarys.edu/courier.