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Jenifer’s Journal: Last laughs

Value laughter more — it’s the only emotion that cannot be compelled. — Gloria Steinem

“He who laughs last laughs last laughs …”   As a  kid, I’d heard that old adage more than once. I got the gist of it and it seemed like a handy one to have in my back pocket when I wanted to smack down a teasing older brother, say, or sound wise with one of my friends.

Sadly, I could never quite spit it out. It was like an endless tongue-twister, until that happy day when I actually listened when someone said it:  “He who laughs last laughs best!”

Oh, hallelujah! It’s actually kind of a prayer wrapped in a venerable comeback, that even if you have to wait for it, someday down the road, you’ll have the last laugh on your tormentor.  

Back in the day, derisive laughter was a daily hazard. Whoever came up with that other adage, that “Sticks and stones…” was either a masochist or a sadist, because most of us still bear the scars of schoolyard taunts or parental criticism that never quite heal.  But being laughed at? On some level I think that can kill you. 

No question about it, derisive laughter can be cruel and dangerous, but then there’s the kind of laughter that Gloria Steinem of all people — that stalwart, serious queen of women’s rights — says we need more of that spontaneous, subversive kind that can’t be compelled or corralled by social convention, the laughing-in-church kind that can sometimes erupt with a violence that’s in direct proportion to our efforts to control it.

For instance, I recall a literal laughing-in-church  incident with my kid brother one Sunday — Easter Sunday, I’m guessing, because my family only went to church twice a year, on Easter and Christmas — when “Mrs. V.” (I don’t dare write her full name, even now, over 60 years later),with her tight brown curls and red lipstick, stepped out from the front line of the choir to perform her solo.

It was in no way our intention to be disrespectful or, heaven forbid, cruel, but, as she began her high-pitched warble, we made the fatal mistake of looking at one another, and that was that. There’s no explaining the alchemy that occurred between the seemingly random elements producing that moment of hilarity — as they say, you had to be there.

But that’s another thing, like love, laughter is mysterious. Not that all kinds of experts, such as doctors, psychologists, physicists, oh, and comedians, of course, haven’t tried to plumb its depths, kind of like looking for the Comedians’ Stone.

Actually, the influence of laughter on humans can be pretty serious. Some of us may recall Readers’ Digest (don’t pretend you didn’t read it) and its most popular feature, “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” We were long ago made aware of laughter’s salubrious effects, and science has spent decades confirming it.

In 2022, the website bluezones.com published an article, “The Science of Laughter and Its Physical, Cognitive and Emotional Power,” by Professor Janet Gibson of Grinnell College. Regarding laughter’s influence on the human body, Professor Gibson writes: “Laughter — doing it or observing it — activates multiple regions of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which helps you understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning all these circuits on strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity.”

The professor goes on to say: ”By activating the neural pathways of emotions like joy and mirth, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense. For example, laughing may help control brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, similar to what antidepressants do. By minimizing your brain’s responses to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems over time. Laughter’s kind of like an antidote to stress, which weakens these systems and increases vulnerability to diseases”

I suspect that, like Ms. Steinem, the professor is referring here to authentic laughter. In an age where anything can be faked — photos, Facebook pages, news, Nikes, etc. — as  with love and compassion, laughter is no exception.

What cannot be counterfeited, of course, is the sheer joy of experiencing the real thing.

Speaking of which, the hit Broadway musical, “Mamma Mia!” is moving to Shelter Island School this weekend (call 631 -749-0302 for tickets). In fact, it’s opening tonight, Thursday, March 30, and playing though the weekend. 

There promises to be at least as many real laughs in the show as the cast and crew have had in the mounting of it. Make the healthy choice and go see it.

Remember, “S/he who laughs, lasts,” right?