By Dr. Jim Ferguson

One of my observations of life (Fergisms) is that parenthood is a state of constant concern about your children, and intermittent worry. Since I have four grandchildren – and another on the way- I believe the state of concern extends to grandparents. However, the joys of children far outweigh even the challenges of the teenage years. Three thousand years ago the Psalmist sang, “Children are a reward from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3), and the Proverbist observed, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Proverbs 17:6).

I’m convinced you never understand something until you can explain the concept to someone else. You can see why I have perspective when you realize that the word “doctor” derives from the Latin word docere which means to teach. Doctors teach their patients and each other, as well as support staff and trainees. However, as a parent I went back to school – in a sense – because I had to relearn a lot of things to help my girls with homework. Fortunately, I went back to school before the era of the so-called  “new math.” A friend of mine is a math major and designs computer programs. He found that the new math was both illogical and obtuse.

When we built our retirement home, Becky and I converted a large space, designated by the architect as a storage closet, to a movie room. The grand kids love to come over and watch movies with JD and BeBe (nicknames for Jim-Dad and Becky). And we love being with the Cute-Ones, watching kid movies with wonderful graphics and introducing Cute-Ones to classics like the Muppet Movie. Like his grandfather, Oakley loves Star Wars, except the episodes with the big worm, Jabba the Hutt, who is a bit scary for a six year old. And like her grandparents, three year old Josie loves Mary Poppins.

Among the many memorable songs in Mary Poppins is “I Love to Laugh.” As I sang along with Uncle Albert, floating on the ceiling, I started thinking about laughter, asking “Why do humans laugh?” Most people laugh as a response to something they consider funny, but sometimes anxious situations can provoke what we call “nervous laughter.” I’m not ticklish, but my grandkids are. I can’t remember whether I was ticklish as a kid, and neither can my mother. Maybe I was once ticklish and lost my tickle on the way to adulthood. However, I think laughter from tickling is different than laughter produced by a good joke. Tickling seems more associated with anxiety than mirth.

Laughter can be deep and belly shaking or just a light giggle. Experts recognize “laughter-like vocalizations” in the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos). Gelotology is the study of laughter in humans and what people find humorous. Experts have found that “laughter is infectious,” but not like influenza! Why do you think preliminary acts are used to “warm up the audience” before the main event? In the same manner, television uses studio laughter or a laugh track to promote mood in the audience. Musical scores in movies similarly promote mood.

Scientists can demonstrate activity in the brain stem limbic system (hippocampus and amygdala) associated with laughter. It is intriguing that the hippocampus is an early target of Alzheimer’s Disease where laughter patterns often change. Inappropriate laughter is sometimes associated with dementia and other medical conditions like cataplexy and narcolepsy or pseudobulbar palsy and psychoses. Because laughter is thought to stimulate the release of endorphins, laughter therapy has also been used even outside of comedy clubs! Maybe we should all seek such therapy.

Following the events of the day sometimes makes it harder to laugh. And since laughter has been associated with a release of tension and better health, watching CNN and reading the NYT does not promote well being. Just as laughter stimulates more laughter, being around negative people will darken your soul. These days, even late night comedy shows and sports have become politicized, where negativity is the tour de force. I’ve read that Jerry Seinfeld no longer does comedy shows on dour and politically correct college campuses.

There is a fundamental property of the universe known as entropy which states that energy dissipates just as a spinning top winds down and eventually falls over. I’ve previously written about a book called “The Practice Effect.” The idea behind this work of science fiction was entropy. In an imaginary land everyone worked to make something from nothing. As an example, rubbing sticks together ultimately resulted in a chair. And if the craftsman stopped “practicing” on his creation, the chair would quickly revert to sticks.

Becky and I are again reading “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis with a group of fellow Christians. Lewis, the Oxfordian British Don, can be difficult, so our discussions of Lewis’ thoughts are often more valuable than his prose. Lewis believes we must practice at being loving even if we don’t feel warm and fuzzy about something or someone. And by practicing love and charity we are changed for the better.

There’s a 16th century prayer by Fra Giovanni known as “Take Joy.” It was originally a Christmas greeting to a friend, but I think the message is timeless. I encourage you to Google the entire prayer and its admonitions!

I believe you must seek and take joy wherever you can and welcome laughter’s release from negativity. After 9/11 Becky recalls hearing a child’s laughter and how she realized the absence of laughter in those somber days. You can stay engaged, but when the relentless parade of negativity drains your soul, it’s time to turn off the TV and use the newspaper for more constructive enterprises such as wrapping fish.

Some years ago I came upon another pithy admonition which I loved and used in a daughter’s wedding toast. I believe it may work for you:

“So here’s to love and laughter and happy ever afters!”