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EAL #6 – The Laughter and the Light

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Laughing with Liver Cancer

Last week I took a personal storytelling class in the City (that’s the New York City). It was a small class, eight of us in total, on the 10th floor of some old Manhattan building with a rickety elevator that had me thinking about whether elevator cables ever sever and what my James Bond escape might look like. 

My classmates shared many powerful experiences, but one anecdote in particular struck me. (Since some of my classmates were nice enough to join this list, I’m letting them know that I asked permission to share this first.) One woman shared how growing up she had a friend who’s family was super easygoing and lighthearted. She shared how her friend’s mom was now dying of liver cancer and she had visited to say goodbye. Jaundiced and yellow and dying, her friend’s mom still greeted her with characteristic laughter and lightheartedness.  

Laughing while dying. Wow. Some people are blessed with such a lightness of being, things are just not a big deal. Joy is all over for them. After health and basic needs, a light temperament is the biggest win in the genetic lottery.

Are We Stuck with Our Genetic Lottery (without Playing Around with Syphilis)?

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells a story about Natasha, a women in her eighties who suddenly became happy. Natasha had lived her life as an anxious introvert, but lately she’d become much more playful and outgoing. Life’s going good so you go see the doctor, right? Well, friends commented on her easiness being out of character so Dr. Oliver got a visit and a great story. 

Turns out she had served a stint in a brothel at a young age and had contracted syphilis which remained dormant for 60 or so years. Well not anymore. The Rip Van Winkle spirochetes (a kind of spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis) decided it would be fun to wake up and play around with her nervous system. Fortunately, they were apprehended before they could do more “damage.” Also fortunately, the damage was kind of an upgrade.

Now my personality is more of the original, heavy Natasha style, and less of the laughing with liver cancer style. And I have no interest in playing around with spirochetes, nor is my unisex adolescent environment, marry-the-first-girl I dated after two months, monogamous lifestyle, likely to yield such a natural experiment. Besides, I think I’ll stay away from that particular game of dice.

So am I stuck because of my genetic set point? Or can I get some of that post-syphilis lightness, sans spirochetes?

Making Peace with the Darkness Gives the Light Permission to Visit

I’ll say this — because I’ve stopped running away from the darkness, my mind has started to change. Cracks appear in the anxious haze, and joy and laughter bubble through. The more whatever is here is okay, the more the light visits me. The more kindly I treat myself, the more beautiful others become. The more I cry, the more I laugh. 

This is not some gimmick or clever positive psychology technique: it is a shift in the fabric of my mind that comes from tens of thousands of times of just pausing to look at what’s here with the most gentle, loving curiosity I can muster. It’s as if the mind changes itself when you kindly introduce it to your direct experience, when you just look clearly with no agenda — no fixing, no changing, no improving.

The lightness comes in glimpses and glimmers, flashes and flickers. But the whole anxious facade is shaking. It’s like a big story — thousands of stories! — that my brain is addicted to has started to fall apart as I examine it, an all-consuming mirage that proves evanescent when poked.

We are by nature filled with the good stuff — curiosity, playfulness, laughter, friendship — just watch a child, that sweet essence you see doesn’t really go away. But when we’re so self-preoccupied, so obsessed with rumination and worry, there’s no space in the house for nice guests (“this being human is a guest house”). 

Our light gets clouded over because we are so filled with it that we want to protect it; I’ve come to see all my anxieties are a part of me always worrying about my wellbeing. They are often unskillful and maladaptive, but they are driven by love. 

When we make peace with the darkness, joy and laughter, curiosity and wonder, love and connection, are all waiting behind to visit. Life is still chaos, but all the protection I’ve thrown up to hold it at bay is shuddering. If life is chaos, it’s far easier to be chaos, to be the waves, then to struggle to to swim. If there’s no use holding on, may as well just let go, there is something so profound underneath. 

Something that never stops laughing — through life and through liver cancer. 


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