Serious Times Call for Laughter

G.K. CHESTERTON once said, “the tendency of recent culture has been to tolerate the smile but discourage the laugh.” It’s not that G.K.C didn’t like smiling, he simply didn’t prefer it over laughter. Here’s why.

In his essay “Laughter,” Chesterton outlines three reasons why a laugh is better than a smile:

1. The smile can easily turn into a sneer, while it’s hard to have a true laugh (opposed to a cackle) with malicious intent.

2. The smile is individual and often secretive, whereas the laugh is social and contagious.

3. Laughing is innocent and unguarded and comes closer to true humility as it makes itself vulnerable.

“Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration,” Chesterton said, “it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves.” Laughter pulls us out of ourselves in a way that smiling alone cannot do. A smile can cover up deeper issues. But a true laugh blesses us with a sort of self-forgetfulness.

Chesterton saw biblical faith as a fountain of joy, something which, if taken seriously, leads most naturally to laughter. In his essay “On Seriousness,” Chesterton wrote, “I do not like seriousness. I think it is irreligious. Or, if you prefer the phrase, it is the fashion of all false religions. The man who takes everything seriously is the man who makes an idol of everything.”

This doesn’t mean the Christian refuses to think about or speak out on important issues. Chesterton argued the Christian witness should have more of a tone of sincere joy than anything else. In his introduction to Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times Chesterton wrote,

“I have heard that in some debating clubs there is a rule that the members may discuss anything except religion and politics. I cannot imagine what they do discuss; but it is quite evident that they have ruled out the only two subjects which are either important or amusing. The thing is a part of of a certain modern tendency to avoid things because they lead to warmth; whereas, obviously, we ought, even in a social sense, to seek those things specially. The warmth of the discussion is as much a part of hospitality as the warmth of the fire.”

What might Chesterton encourage us to do in a season of fear, international conflict, and anxiety? Laugh. Don’t believe me? I’ll let the final words come from the literary giant himself. This is from his book Orthodoxy:

“Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.”