We worry about infections regularly. The last thing people want is a cold right before they go on a summer vacation, before they see a newborn, or before they are about to give a presentation half way around the world to a group of people who might approve their work for the next three years.
And, yet, there are some types of infections, or infectious behavior, that have the opposite effect, making us stronger, purging our system of toxins and giving us the extra energy to work harder, to be more patient with traffic around us and to smile when someone accidentally insults us.
Laughter fits that bill. TV producers certainly understand this when they add laugh tracks to their shows. It allows people to feel as if they are not alone, as they laugh with others they can’t see, even if they are alone in front of their TV.
A late family friend used to become so caught up in funny stories that his quick breaths and high-pitched squeals kept him from speaking. The tale, however, became irrelevant as his performance more than compensated for the lack of a narrative, allowing the rest of the room, particularly those who knew him well, to share his laughter.
I can still hear the laughter from my late aunt, whose giggles would often end with joyous tears.
I recently spent a few days with my brothers to celebrate summer birthdays. We sailed, ate well and hit baseballs on a hot, airless field at Gelinas Junior High School.
I stood in right field, as one brother pitched and the other sent bombs deep into the outfield. My sister-in-law patrolled near second base, scooping up grounders and acting as a relay.
My brother crushed a hard grounder directly at his wife. I immediately shouted, “Field it to the side. Move out of the way.”
My brothers started laughing, slowly at first, at advice that was so contrary to the suggestions I had made when I coached baseball and softball over the last decade.
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “but I don’t want her to get hurt. I’d rather she missed a ball that hit a rock or took a crazy bounce than have it slam into her.”
“Sure, sure,” they teased. “You really don’t know anything about this game, do you?”
Then, it occurred to me to go with it.
“Well,” I shrugged, “I’m actually trying a new technique.”
“Oh yeah?” they asked dubiously.
“Yes, I’m going to tell the kids, ‘Take your eyes off the ball and make sure you have absolutely no idea what to do with the ball when it comes to you.’”
After a few snickers, the four of us shared the kinds of things you’d never tell kids on a baseball field, which ramped up the laughter. Things such as “Yes, it is all your fault” and “No, you’re not that good at this sport.”
The laughter somehow made the heat of the afternoon more bearable.
Later, my younger brother was in the middle of a salad when he offered something so uproariously funny that his lips could barely contain the food, even as he couldn’t possibly swallow. With great effort, he slowed his laughter and swallowed.
I’m not sure what was so funny, but I know the value of laughter. Yes, of course, one movie after another tells us about the power of love, which drives people to incredible achievements and affirms the value of our connections.
Along the way, however, laughter helps fill our tank, soothes the frustrations of the day and puts a broad infectious smile on our faces that can spread, like a beneficial virus, delivering feelings of goodwill that can cascade through a crowd.