I distinctly remember a day when I didn’t know how to laugh.
I was in sixth grade, on the football field after lunch. It was a warm fall day, and I was wearing yellow sweat pants which were uncomfortable due to the heat and because no one else wore sweat pants in middle school. We were playing hacky sack, instead of football, which was also embarrassing because my big feet in my oversized Chuck Taylors could not keep the little ball in the air. Other boys, in their khaki pants and soccer shoes, moved gracefully and effortlessly.
There was a group of girls, likewise standing in a circle, just to my left. In addition to hacky sack, the boys were actively involved in listening to everything they said while trying to appear utterly disinterested. We all knew that this was how we were supposed to act; this was our unspoken mantra.
But then! One of the older, bolder (and bustier) girls picked up the wayward hacky sack that had inadvertently landed at her feet and swiftly punted it back, hard and low. So quick, in fact, that one of the boys did not see it coming like a projectile missile and, as fate would have it, “caught” it right in his crotch.
There was a stunned silence for about half-of-a-breath.
Then, the boys in their khaki pants and soccer shoes started to laugh. Cackle really. Years later, I recognize something of a survivor’s guilt in their voices – “Thank God, it wasn’t me” – but, at the time, part of our unspoken creed of disinterestedness was displaying a lack of empathy towards others. And so, you laugh at the unfortunate. I joined in.
But the point of this story is that my laugh sounded unreal to my own ears. It was false and metallic, kind of like my friend’s artificial Christmas tree which was still up in his living room because his mother had died from cancer. And, as I distinctly recall, he was laughing the loudest.
All this came back to me just the other night when I was sitting across from my wife and son at a restaurant. We had finished eating, and I was paying the bill. My son, who is never disinterested, grabbed at my wallet and, for no immediately observable reason, began laughing. Laughing hard! His laugh is surprisingly deep for a little one, resonant and full-bodied like red wine. And it is the type of laugh that makes you join in, finding your voice, like raising a glass to toast your own success. So all three of us were soon laughing with joy, completely unaware of anyone else, including the waiter, who stood patiently and graciously by until I handed her my credit card finally.
One day, my son will enter middle school. God help him. In the meantime, I am reminded of a line from Wendell Berry: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.