Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities nearly 200 years ago. His opening lines describe our world today, as aptly as anything published in recent years. He writes:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
I come from a long line of Scottish ancestors predisposed to melancholy and pessimism. It requires little effort for my siblings and me to notice we’re in the worst of times. Our ability to see what’s wrong with a situation or the world in general is first-class. You might even call it a gift.
However, our ancestors also bestowed upon us a peculiar sense of humour, enabling us to always find something to laugh about. We instinctively find something funny even in the most dire and dark circumstance.
Not everyone “gets” or appreciates our peculiar brand of comedy. One’s sense of humour is as unique as one’s fingerprints. Regardless of your comedic sensibilities, when your eyes are opened to the paradoxical fullness of reality, you simultaneously see the tragedy and comedy in life. This means you can almost always find something to laugh about.
The American poet E.E. Cummings said, “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” German theologian Karl Barth said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
Laughter is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Sometimes it’s the only thing we have to keep us going. The movie Life is Beautiful is a wonderful reminder of the life-giving power of humour and laughter.
Of course, there are inappropriate times to laugh. The Bible teaches us to weep with those who weep. To be human is to empathize and care for those who are suffering. Yet, it also teaches us to laugh with those who laugh. If we refrain from laughter until there is no more suffering or injustice on earth, we will never laugh. It’s important to find occasions for laughter, especially in the dark seasons. Maintaining a somber attitude of despair rarely brings more light into the world, but laughter can.
We are called to work for peace and justice, but if injustice and suffering is all we see, our eyes haven’t been opened to the paradoxical fullness of life. When our eyes are opened to God’s presence and activity in the world, we see the paradox of life. We see both the horror and the hope, that the world is both awful and amazing, filled with beauty and light as well as injustice and pain. We see the world has gotten better and is getting better, while acknowledging it could improve even more, with our help.
Many people are so focused on the problems that they ignore the progress. It’s important to recognize and celebrate the good, while marching toward the best. We should feel encouraged by the people, organizations and systems that are changing and working for justice and peace. We should be grateful for how far we’ve come. Our work is not done, but we’re making progress.
On the flip side, some people underestimate the real problems we face in our society and world by overemphasizing the “positives.” If those of us with privilege and power, enjoying the “best of times,” can’t see this is the worst of times for many people, we should heed the quote attributed to Gandhi: “The true measure of any society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
The Bible says we are one body. If one part suffers, we all suffer. The truth is, this is not the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. There is only one reality that we all share. We are all in this together. As Martin Luther King said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This means the responsibility to change the world doesn’t rest squarely on your shoulders, but it also means the suffering of others is not their burden alone. It’s ours too. For we are one.
As our eyes are opened to the paradoxical reality we all share and participate in, we are liberated to join God’s work in meaningful ways. And to share an occasional laugh or two while we’re at it.
Troy Watson is a pastor at Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ontario.