Where is the Laughter?

Published March 18, 2024

The Catholic Thing

A few years ago, I read a series of World War II novels with rather unsatisfying endings. After epic stories of war, bloodshed, human cruelty, and the strong hand of fate, these novels concluded with men who returned home from the war, abandoning their childhood faith. In its place, they embraced a kind of cynical maturity, thinking they were all the wiser than the superstitions of old. While frustrated by these books, I finally realized that they ended this way because this is actually what happened to so many veterans of the Second World War. Their scars and brokenness created a vacuum in the culture where ideologies could grow wild like Virginia vines, pushing out what many came to believe was tired and wanting.

For nearly three generations, as most of these World War II veterans have now gone to their eternal rest, these ideas have gripped families, leading children and grandchildren to grasp at any and every whim of the heart while avoiding the tiresome rituals of an age-old Church.

I recently met an Irish-American writer, Jenny Holland, who is a Gen X granddaughter of this old guard living in Belfast. Holland, who considers herself a non-believer and politically homeless, is critical of her forebearers who, unfettered from faith, were confident they had found something better. She is deeply troubled by the dramatic rise in behavior that can only be called pure evil. She writes about her Irish father at her substack:

I adored my father, but he and other Boomers thought they had it all figured out: that they could have their cake and eat it too, and their offspring would enjoy the fruits of liberalism in perpetuity – because the only thing liberalism could produce was freedom from the shackles of dour tradition and superstition. They were wrong. That’s very obvious to me now.

In response to this, Holland has started looking back, weighing with new eyes the things rejected by her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so on. In this search, though not a Catholic, she confesses that – somehow – she has started saying the Rosary.

Even without a full arsenal of belief, I can sense the importance of the Rosary in this climate, as a symbol of purity, love, and hope. It doesn’t matter any longer to my cynical and impure Gen X heart that ‘purity’ is often used as excuse to abuse and castigate – that is not the fault of purity itself, rather those malevolent people who steal it for their own ends.

I recently had a zoom conversation with Holland. She described her mother’s side of the family; her American grandparents guarded their Catholic faith, but their ten children rushed into the wild and the popular. Going deeper into the details, she said something striking, “I remember family dinners at my grandparent’s house, and I compare them to our gatherings now – especially since my grandparents have died, and I can’t help but thinking, ‘Where is the laughter?’”

This question isn’t limited to just Holland’s family. Our lives are meant to be lived in community, and populated by our immediate family and the wider rings of our parents’ relatives. These are the people with whom we travel through life, sharing Sunday meals, funeral luncheons, wedding feasts, and birthday festivities. These are the people with whom we have collective and even borrowed memories.

Shared events and meals are sometimes awkward, sometimes tedious, often full of bustle and busyness, clatter and cleaning, but more than anything, they should be punctuated by laughter, the kind of laughter that comes from safety and comfort and connection. This is what Holland remembers from her youth.

Sadly, these events, if they happen at all now, seemed to be punctuated by different kinds of laughter, nervous, sardonic, bitter, or teasing. The political has crept into our families so deeply that the personal no longer has its own space. But politics isn’t the root. Pride is ever at play, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker explains, “The humorous are humans who have humility and who are down to earth. The inability to take a joke or make a joke is one of the hallmarks of pride. Satan never laughs.”

The absence of laughter can also mean an absence of safety, an absence of the love that should exist among those with whom we are meant to be most intimate. There is little joyful laughter in the child too early exposed to sexuality; in those reaching for porn and/or birth control to feed and fix the demands of fertility; in the couple where the husband and wife no longer trust each other, with their bond of marriage breaking more than building; or in those creating idols out of unbound freedom.

The relentless quest for pleasure, power, or money gnaws at relationships, rotting responsibility and love. The family, for modern men and women, often feels smothering or enslaving, instead of enlivening.

In current culture, Catholic doctrine is frequently mocked as a silly set of rules and regulations, but it turns out to be something much richer, deeper, and healthier than most imagine. It is this overlooked doctrine that has the potential to create the space for our laughter. And when it is abandoned, laughter ends. But if we maintain or recover our own integrity through the sacramental life, trust, vulnerability, and real care have room to grow. Tables can once again become animated by giggles, guffaws, and even snorts as families delight in each other.

Holland is not alone in the quest for the restoration of laughter. So many people are quietly searching, including those at our own tables, pews, and workspaces. Let’s hope that their search will lead them to a place so that when future historical novelists draw their books to a close, they will conclude not with doubt and despair, but with peace, hope – and even mirth.

Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is the co-editor at the online women’s magazine Theology of Home.

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