Our Laughter and Our Tears

The call came early last Saturday. Michael groggily fumbled for the phone in our dark hotel room. “Hello? Oh, no. . . . I’m so sorry. Hold on, I’ll get him.” He handed me the receiver.

A few minutes later, I was in the rental car, a cup of steaming black coffee in hand, driving to my sister’s house. I quietly let myself in and surveyed the tangle of bodies in the living room slumber party. I picked out my two nieces, both in their early twenties. A gentle touch to the shoulder, whispered words, then tears and hugs. Soon, the three of us were back in my car, en route to the one-story hospice nestled in a stand of trees, to say a last good-bye to their father. After years of suffering and decline, he had left his body 30 minutes before, with my sister, his wife, by his side.

And then, eight hours later, I stood in front of another canopy of tall moss-draped trees and welcomed my niece and her fiancé (along with assembled family and friends) to their wedding. And while the evening truly was both lovely and celebratory, we did not sidestep its peculiar juxtaposition with her father's death. In fact, I made it the focus of my remarks to the bride and groom before they said their vows. About how this seemingly incongruous timing is just a reminder of the way things are. The continual comings and the goings—of people, phases of life, and parts of ourselves. Change is one of the few constants that we can count on during this brief ride, and if a marriage is going to survive, it has to be built for that kind of change. All in all, it was a beautiful and relaxed evening, full of smiles and laughter, along with some tenderness and tears. It would have felt incomplete without both.

Laughter and tears. They really are so close. Both of them are channels that our nervous systems can use to regulate and discharge a sudden surge of energy. It’s not surprising that a fit of laughing can leave you in tears. If you listen closely, deep sobs and hearty belly laughs can sound very similar. I find lately that I move very easily between the two camps. One of the side-benefits of my work is that I'm usually pretty comfortable with expressions of strong emotion, including my own. I’m grateful: it’s a useful skill to have. (Often, when we rush to comfort someone who is in tears, we’re really managing our own discomfort–not theirs—about the rawness of the emotion.) It’s one of the reasons that I wasn’t flustered by the close timing of these two events.

I live in Louisiana, where we are now in the process of taking down our trees and other festoons of the winter holidays to make room for our Mardi Gras decorations. While the rest of the nation is mired in post-Christmas depression, the party is just getting started in this neck of the woods. It’s my favorite season. And one of the primary symbols of Mardi Gras (or Carnival) in Louisiana is the twin masks of comedy and tragedy. I think there’s some deep wisdom in that choice. The combination resonates so strongly for me that I’ve marked my body with it, in the form of a shoulder tattoo that incorporates the two faces of laughter and tears. 

I spend the majority of Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans with the St. Anne walking parade, a raucous street party of costumed revelers. It traverses the Marigny neighborhood and French Quarter, ending with a ceremony on the banks of the Mississippi River. Many of the attendees use that closing time to make intentions or release some burden of pain from the year before, like ashes or mementos from those who have passed or messages to them. 

In recent years, the parade’s leader has been an exuberant jester who changes the route on a whim and pulls off outlandish high jinks along the way—climbing fences, balconies, and traffic light poles, and committing unspeakable acts with random objects he encounters. Last year, he was in particularly fine form. And yet, at the end, after the ceremony by the river, I spied him sitting alone on the pier’s edge, sobbing. And I thought, “Of course.” It was a profoundly sacred moment. Actually, both elements were sacred to me—his joy and his tears, and they moved in rhythm with each other. 

The coaching/self-improvement industry often promotes a suspect standard of unshakable positivity—unremitting confidence and joyful self-actualization. I think that’s only half the story. It’s important for us to feel ALL our feelings, to deepen our relationships with all aspects of our being, and lean into the hard parts when necessary. There are messages and lessons in both our joys and our sorrows. As you move through your hours and days and weeks, I hope you find well-traveled pathways between your laughter and your tears, and that you flow between them with familiar ease and deep respect for both.