Tears and Laughter

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Tears and Laughter”

A Sermon Delivered by

The Rev. Doug Inhofe at the

Unitarian Congregation of Taos

Taos, New Mexico

October 19, 2014
Imagine, as if in a dream, a throng of people, of all religions, swarming down a wide hallway, and imagine having been assigned the task of separating out from the throng a smaller group, one that will be constituted of only the Unitarians. The means of doing so, you might dream, have previously been proposed. It’s this: fashion two signs, and then hang one of them pointing down a side passageway, saying “This way to Heaven,” and hang the other sign, pointing down a different passageway, saying, “This way to a discussion about Heaven.” This procedure will, it is prophesied, surely show you who the real Unitarians are!

Perhaps Unitarians relish a robust, heart-filled discussion as much as they yearn for a hearty laugh. We Unitarians are moved by our emotions, more than most people know. People are moved by their emotions, more than most people know. It is our emotions that sum up two things: our beliefs . . . and our feelings about them. It is our emotions that make us human. It is our emotions that computers cannot simulate. At least not yet.

It is our emotions that happen when we are committed to our beliefs. It is our emotions that tell us that we are engaged in the experience of our lives. When our emotions are there, we know we’re not just exhibiting ourselves to the world, hoping to find our existence in others’ eyes . . . we are not just viewing the world, reflecting dispassionately . . . but, rather, we are un-self-consciously immersed in the world. Then we emote: we are angry, or we are sad, or we are ashamed, or we are proud, or we are, as happens a lot, just plain tickled.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the tears at one end and the laughter at the other. Even when we know we feel something, sometimes it’s hard to say what. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that, “between the expressions of laughter and weeping, there is no difference in the motion of the features, either in the eyes, mouth or cheeks.” Can you imagine that!—when we laugh, and when we cry, we often shed tears, we often move our heads erratically, our bodies convulse, our respiration is disturbed, our eyes are contracted for protection from our own spasmodic shaking. Think about it this way, the way a 17th-Century English poet, Robert Herrick, once thought about it. Think about it this way, to see how close tears and laughter really can be. As an aside . . . this is a two-line poem, so hang in there at the beginning, it goes fast.

Know’st thou one month would take thy life away,

Thou’dst weep; but laugh, should it not last a week.

A hundred years later, Charles Darwin was equally intrigued by the similarities between tears and laughter. He was writing his 1872 book entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It was important to Darwin to show that human emotions had evolved from the great apes and chimpanzees. His efforts to wring emotions out of zoo-kept chimps were tireless, including tickling apes under the armpits, giving snuff to chimps, making faces at orangutans, and watching baboons recoil in horror from a stuffed snake. He ran one experiment where he hid a turtle under a heap of straw in the London Zoo’s monkey cage, hoping to shock the animals and evoke expressions of astonishment. Darwin arranged that an illustrator would be on hand to record the results, and the illustrator reported as follows: “The monkeys suspected something and kept looking down from on high. Clever fellows! I shall never forget that. The keeper then retired, and presently the heap of straw began to move. The turtle came out, but, instead of showing fear, the monkeys crept nearer. The back-crested ape came and looked at it, and walked in front of the turtle as it crept under him. Finally he went and sat on the turtle. Darwin was much amused and asked for a drawing of the incident.”

The debate became whether the ape had really expressed any emotion at all and, if so, whether it was a flickering of fear, a sneer of dominance, or a glimmer of happiness. The illustrator’s picture of it all shows the monkey riding the turtle, the monkey’s impressive crest of hair flattened back, and the corners of his mouth drawn backwards to reveal a frightening set of chattering teeth with which, according to Darwin, he was making a “slight jabbering noise.”

As Darwin put it, only those familiar with the animal could know that the monkey was not baring his teeth but, instead, grinning with happiness . . . laughing, as Darwin would have it. Years later, the illustrator added a telling note to this sketch: “I never believed the follow was laughing, although Darwin said he was.”

Fast forward now to our modern times. Consider a genre of movies that includes Great Balls of Fire, about Jerry Lee Lewis, and Coal Miner’s Daughter, about Loretta Lynn, and Ray, about Ray Charles, and Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash, and Jimi: All is By My Side, about—who else!—Jimi Hendrix, with OutKast’s Andre 3000, Andre Benjamin, as Jimi. All are movies about people who struggled mightily against early odds but who, in the end, became famous enough that . . . well, that someone would see the way to make a movie about them.

I’ve always been suspicious about such movies, thinking, at first blush, that the movies were misguided to lionize these broken icons, these people with torment and talent who struggled to outrun their origins and, in their writhing, wriggled into scrapes and scraps that often came to a screeching, screaming halt right before the last credits rolled onto the screen.

There were always lots of tears and laughter—in fact, there was something almost manic about the distribution of those emotions, and I was suspicious because I wondered what these people had done to earn their fame. What had they done to make their tears and laughter cinema-worthy?

I’ve continued working on that question, from time to time . . . while all the while I’ve been noticing how often these movies are made, and how often they succeed, and now I’m working on the meta-questions, of why they succeed and what it all means—I mean, what do Darwin and back-crested apes and deep-seated musical rhythms and low-down back beats and fast-talking riffs and light-hearted songs and early-childhood tragedy and dying, in Notting Hill, London, at the young age of 27, have to do with each other, and why are they all up there on the screen in the first place?

Is it that we like to see a winner, someone conquering their past, or is it that we’re intrigued—like Darwin was—by the origins of these people, the Lorettas and the Johnnys, and the Jimis, and the reality of their fame?

Well, it’s debatable whether these people are winners in the game of life, and often enough their fame alone isn’t much of a story. So what explains the movies’ popularity? My current theory is this: the movies succeed, the movies call out to us, because they are ready-made, real-life sketches of tears and laughter—tears and laughter in great abundance, I should add, in almost-mythic, almost-manic abundance, enough of both to fill up one life and one film and still have enough tragedy and comedy left over to flesh out and fill up the credits and the outtakes and the publicists’ trailers and the movie-tone hype and the screen magazines and ultimately even the all-knowing website.

We like the movies simply because they have tears and laughter in them. The fame part, that’s just the publicists’ window dressing, the fame’s just there to get us to buy the ticket, to get us in the door. But it’s the struggle itself, the one seen through the wash of the tears from both the weeping and the laughing, that calls forth our innermost acclamations, our innermost kudos for these cinematic displays of our innermost selves.

It doesn’t matter whether you like the music or not, and it doesn’t matter if the lead characters conquer all and come out on top. All you need to like about them is the life that’s looming so ominously in the background, the life that’s trying to overwhelm the odds, the life that’s trying to overcome the obstacles—these are the sign posts that there’s life there at all, these are the signposts in our own lives, these are signs that someone hung up, over these people’s lives, over our lives, saying, “This way to a debate about heaven. Come tell us what you have to say. Come cry your tears and roar out your laughter. Come be alive. Don’t shrink back. Put that turtle under the straw heap and be ready to leap back in astonishment yourself. You, you see, not the back-crested ape, will be the one laughing.”

It doesn’t matter who or what you are—it will still be you who is laughing. You can be as stolid as a recently indicted chief financial officer, or as floridly flippant as a street-wise rapper. You can be as sorrowful as a crocodile, or as fun-filled as a hyena. The course of all our lives leads directly under the sign that says “this way to a discussion about heaven.” There we will hear the heart-breaking stories that make us cry, and the hilarious ones that make us laugh, and perhaps soon they will all come together, in a meta-narrative about struggle, and we will be hard pressed then to know if we’re laughing or crying.

But we will know we’re alive. We will be living the stories ourselves, we will be part of the stories like those on the screen, we will be engaged in that discussion in heaven, forever struggling with our beliefs and forever awash in the strong feelings we have about them.

The literary world is full of the same lesson. Henry James put it this way, in The Ambassadors, and he made the same point in his 1903 short story, “The Beast in the Jungle”: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” It doesn’t matter what particular kind of life you have. It matters that you have had a life. The pathos of the unlived life is a goad to us all, to skip over the watching of our lives and, instead, to gather life into our own hands. Pieces of the un-lived life are in us all, to be sure—but when we take the time to really communicate, to debate, to let our feelings be known . . . when we take the time to love, we can be sure we’re on the right track.

And, while you’re on the right track, bear this in mind. Bear in mind this final poem by Edward Lear, a nineteenth century English poet known for his humorous way of making serious points. It’s entitled “The Jumblies.” Listen to it, listen to Lear tell us that our lives are not about winning or conquering or being famous, but about struggling, about trying, about tears and laughter. Listen to Lear show us, so imaginatively, that we who live this way are the ones who set sail in a sieve, we are the ones who, others think, have grown tall, we are the ones who’ve visited “the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone, and the hills of the Chankly Bore.”

As an aside, before I read the poem, let me explain one word in it that might not be known to our younger people. I was at a garage sale the other morning, looking at a table covered with kitchen utensils, and I showed my daughter, Gabi, a sifter, and asked her what it was—of course, she had never seen one, and didn’t know. I felt very knowledgeable, and also just a bit old! In Lear’s poem, some people go to sea in a sieve. It’s important to know: a sieve is a strainer, usually made of metal and always full of holes.

Now, here is “The Jumblies.” Sit back and relax and close your eyes and enjoy this very-light hearted, this very serious poem.


Life is not a story, building to a victorious climax just before the film runs out. Life is at every moment an adventure, one whose happening is betokened by our own tears and laughter along the way. “It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter.” [Kahlil Gibran.] It helps us all, at all sorts of times in our lives, to experience our lives in this light. We can be grateful for the chance to experience them, and for what there is there!


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