The Theosophical Forum – December 1950

THE GODS TAUGHT US TO LAUGH — Ethel G. Bailey

I can remember so well an afternoon in the Temple at Point Loma, California, many years ago, when Dr. de Purucker was to speak. The room was crowded with an eager, expectant audience. He walked with his deliberate stride to the rostrum and then, without saying a word, just stood and looked at us. The entire audience held its breath. The waves on the beach below the cliffs plainly heard, at the Temple, must have come and gone more than once and still not a word. Then suddenly G. de P. smiled. At first gently, then quite broadly. Immediately, like a sudden shaft of sunshine through a dark room, an answering smile swept the audience and ended at the outer edges in a little ripple of laughter.

"You looked so awfully solemn," he remarked, half laughing. "I wanted to see if you could smile."

It is interesting to realize that the human is the only animal that laughs. No doubt it is because he is so very much more than animal. While some dog-lovers claim that their pets smile, and hyenas and loons are said to laugh, that is really stretching the word. True laughter, that is, a real sense of humor, is not found in the scale of evolution below the human. It arises from a sense of the grotesque or the startling and surprising, or from a sense of the incongruity of ideas.

A baby laughs when you surprise it with, "Peek-a-boo!" A sage chuckles at some metaphysical incongruity. It is the gift of a human to be able to compare, and comparing, he judges. He alone can make for himself a ladder into abstract ideas and into impersonality. When the Manasaputras lighted the mind of man in the Third Race, I believe there was one jolly old god who used a candle of Nonsense, a taper of pure Fun for the work. It was one of the best gifts made to mankind.

Dr. Wm. Crawley of Stanford University said recently that the "test of Education is maturity," and "not so much our words, as the things we laugh at show what we are."

It seems to me that we cannot lay much claim to maturity of mind till we have learned, in all sincerity, to laugh at ourselves. We know a trick or two of modern living that would make the Australian bush-man open his eyes, but compared to the Elder Brothers of mankind we are ignorant toddlers. And as for our magpie collection of trinkets, they might tolerantly remind us that the ancient Greeks had the right idea when they said the "fewer our wants, the more nearly we resemble the gods."

We might extend somewhat the significance of laughter, this gift of the gods. There is a deeper laughter than that of the lips, which latter too often is thoughtless or cruel, or an expression of mere animal spirits — Kipling's phrase for it was "hob-nailed mirth." But this other kind of laughter most often is silent. It is the laughter of the heart — laughter that may take the form of lovely music or simply rise like a beautiful cloud of harmony and serenity, wrapping the earth in a garment of glory. There is a music of the spheres of which all the poets sing, all the sages and seers speak, which indeed all the modern scientists expound as a fact in nature. Music of the spheres that is no sentimental vapor of the imagination but a scientifically established fact.

Let us go a step farther into the realm of intuitive perception. May not this music of the spheres be the compassionate laughter of the gods? For surely they, seeing that all laws, all processes, always and forever go forward according to the inescapable and compassionate and magnificent plan, cannot help but sing. And beneath the song springs up a wonderful cosmic laughter, so much deeper and richer than our own that we can only wonder what it may be.

It is interesting to note what an important place even the joke has begun to hold in modern education. General Barrows, ex-president of the University of California, used to begin every public address with a humorous story to get a laugh. It relaxed the audience and put it in sympathy with the speaker more quickly than any other approach. After nearly half a century I am amused to realize that I can remember some of his jokes, although their context is now completely forgotten.

Angelo Patri was talking one day on Palomar to a group of teachers, speaking quite informally, and some one asked him what he thought was the most common failing among teachers as a class. He thought a moment, smiled, then let us have it: "You don't laugh enough," he said, "you are always standing on tiptoe. It won't make you any taller, you'll miss a lot of fun, and you'll just have strained arches."

David Grayson tells how he met a country preacher in the small farming community where he lived. He was shocked at the man's sad and care-worn face, there was something hopeless about his whole manner and appearance. Before Grayson could stop himself he blurted out the thought that had been thrust upon him. Laying his hand sympathetically on the preacher's arm and looking earnestly into his face, he asked, "Is God dead?"

The preacher recoiled. "Why do you ask that?" "Because it seemed to me that nothing else in the world could make you look so sad."

"Did I really give you that impression?" asked the minister. He sighed deeply, and after a few moments said, "Then it is just as I feared. As a preacher I have failed."

Then follows a little sermon preached not by the minister this time, but by David, who gets him to laughing and shows him that even Care has another face. It too has a countenance of joy which is far more healing and acceptable to the world.

Was it Stevenson who said that a difference of taste in jokes can break up a home? That may be an exaggeration of a point but it serves to illustrate how fundamental in character, how closely interwoven in temperament, a sense of the humorous can be.

A practical joke with a custard pie for the main prop, and a banana peel and a fat man thrown in for good measure, might convulse a certain type of person and leave another cold. And a subtle play upon words or an absurd double meaning might amuse a philosopher for years, while the practical joker would marvel at the ease with which the thinker was entertained.

We are a little hurt and out of sympathy with one who doesn't see eye to eye with us about a point of humor. It is almost as bad as to differ about politics or religion, or modern art or music. We feel that the other person is almost deliberately "playing dumb." It is hard to forgive him.

There is a story about Queen Victoria that illustrates an interesting point. It seems that after the death of her husband, to whom she was very deeply devoted, she was sunk in a deep melancholy. No one ever saw her smile. The weight of the duties of the State fell heavily upon her and no one knew how to help. Her friends tried in vain to comfort and cheer her. The fine old bishops of the Church of England offered the consolations of religion without avail. Then one day the servants outside the door of her rooms heard her laughing. Amazed and delighted, they contrived to send in one of her maids under some pretext or other to discover what had worked such a miracle in their Queen.

"A book," exclaimed Victoria, holding up a volume, "such a lively, amusing book. So gay, so absurd! It has done me a world of good. I wish I had one like this to read every day."

The Queen's wish was law, of course, and an order was immediately sent for all the books by the same author. They arrived shortly and were examined with a lively interest, but her face fell quickly. "There has been some mistake," she said. "These books are all concerned with mathematics. They are not even written by the same man at all. These are the works of a C. L. Dodgson and my funny little book, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, is written by Lewis Carroll."

Lewis Carroll — the pseudonym taken by C. L. Dodgson, the professor of mathematics when he wrote, perhaps in shamefaced fun, the gay little book to please a small girl, had succeeded in lifting a queen from melancholy. His serious books are all but forgotten, but The Adventures of Alice has been a best-seller for generations.

When Abraham Lincoln was President he used sometimes to disappear, to the great annoyance of his secretaries, during the dark days of the Civil War when the burdens of the Commander-in-chief were almost too heavy for any mortal to bear. Although it often was difficult to locate Lincoln, his best friends knew where to search. He was most apt to be where common men were telling stories, himself most often the story-teller. He said it rested him more than sleep — of which he had practically none.

When Cicero describes the Eleusinian mysteries, one of his chief recommendations for them is that "those initiated attain the art of living joyfully and of dying with a fairer hope."

There is a touching picture of the poet Milton: old, blind, and disillusioned, sitting in the perpetual night of those to whom the sun never rises. But past joy and laughter have the very special gift of returning with remembrance. I cannot but believe that Milton, sitting imprisoned in his blindness, still smiled as he recollected the joys of his youth. His poem "L'Allegro," so rich in the vital urge of living, carries a warm handclasp of hearty good-fellowship and cheer to this day. It was a gay soul who wrote charmingly of:

Sport, that wrincled Care derides,
And Laughter, holding both his sides.

There is a great army of those who failed and yet were not defeated. Soldiers who lost the battle, sportsmen who smiled and shook hands with the victor, sages who died scorned by their contemporaries but who retained their equanimity. All those who never, no matter what happened to them, ever gave up! How much of their magnificent spirit is due to that wisdom of the Higher Self which allows them to see all round any situation. To even extract a certain grim humor from the very bitterness of their experiences; to know intuitively, as Theosophy teaches, that there is always another chance. To that end let us keep ever alert.

Ina Coolbrith was a California poet who wrote about half a century ago. Her book is probably out of print now. I don't believe she called herself a theosophist; poets seldom tabulate themselves at all, for they only know truth as it enters their hearts. But she speaks as eloquently as anyone I know of the consciousness in Nature. She tells us that life is indeed joy to one who sees, and that Nature is a comforting, smiling, helpful mother who tries to guide her children toward happiness and understanding. We need only to look with the inner eye, to listen with the fine inner ear, to understand and indeed to joy.

Oh, Earth,
Thou hast not any wind that blows
That is not music.
Every weed of thine,
Pressed rightly, flows with aromatic wine.
And every little humble, hedge-row flower that blooms,
And every little, brown bird that doth sing,
A message bears to every living thing;
Although it bears the message unawares.
A spirit breathes amid the grass,
Vague outlines of the everlasting thought,
Are in the melting shadows as they pass.
The thrill of an Eternal Presence fills
The fringes of the sunset and the hills.


The Theosophical Forum

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