In the United States, as of this writing, 215,344 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Of these, 5,112 have died. And only 8,878 people in total have recovered—far from a full or comforting margin.
No vaccine exists for COVID-19. A variety of treatment drugs are undergoing trials, some more intensive than others. If a vaccine does come, it’ll take at least a year. Some say 18 months. Others admit it could take longer, and remind us that a vaccine, while reasonable to expect, is in no way guaranteed.
Myths and tips abound online about alternative treatments. Gargle saltwater. Try acupressure. Get distance reiki healing (the “distance” form being the only viable option, since regular reiki requires its practitioners to stand closeby). Scientists warn against such measures, advising social distancing and the regular washing of hands.
Across America, almost 300 million people across 37 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have been advised or ordered (the legal component varies) to stay at home. The economy is crashing. Some whisper, “Recession.” Others shout, “Depression!”
I personally have lost streams of income. My beloved parents, both in their early 70s, are 3,000 miles from where I write these words. My children won’t see their classmates in the flesh again this school year. I tear up spontaneously throughout the day. I wake early in the morning, inhaling hard to check if my breath is labored, and then staring for too long at the ceiling, wondering when-how-if all of this will end.
I read grim tales of the dying. I know people who know people who are sick. I know likewise that that circle will tighten, drawing sickness in closer to home. I live in a county, after all, that is among the hardest hit in California.
And yet I want to say that it’s OK to joke around and laugh right now.
Understand: This isn’t me telling you to joke around and laugh right now. Frankly, your preferred emotional state isn’t any of my business. Yet gently, as a modest suggestion, I’d like to present joking around and laughing as an option.
Dark days lie ahead of us. For many, and in many respects, such days have already well begun. These days are entirely “no laughing matter.” But that’s fine, as we won’t be laughing because of them; we’ll be laughing in spite of them.
I have a friend who’s a cop, down in L.A. She helped me to achieve accuracy in my first novel. I told her repeatedly and truthfully that I could never do her job; I’m way too neurotic, way too heavy with fear. But she insisted that bravery wasn’t her job’s key ingredient. She said its key ingredient was something that I already have.
Being a cop, she explained to me, demands a sense of humor.
I took her point—although I’m still not about to enroll in the police academy: Humor is needed not because police work is unserious, but because it’s incredibly, deeply, staggeringly the opposite.
It’s hard to laugh freely on social media, which is the main neighborhood pub of this moment, as well as of this age. Somebody will always audit your jokes. Somebody will always fail to find the right light mood.
That’s fine; leave them be. May they laugh at what they wish to, or at nothing at all. In their eyes, you may be but a buffoon, always looking for ways to reduce, to trivialize—make light.
But “making light” needn’t be about reducing weight—even though that is fine, too. Making light can very much be a process of reducing darkness.
In dark days such as these, we find ourselves starved for light. That’s why it’s so important that we joke around and laugh, or at least recall the option to do so. Through humor, we remind ourselves of life’s essential strangeness. And we thus frame ourselves, as a matter of course, as creatures of absurdity.
Ridiculousness never goes out of fashion. Its secret in that regard is that it’s never in fashion, either.
Ridiculousness is simply an aspect of human life.
As grim as things get, as challenging as our days become, they will never take leave of their essential, stark absurdity. Indeed, as those who’ve experienced past traumas can tell you, as things grow worse, they only manage to grow more absurd in the meantime.
In this way, this horrific crisis carries with it opportunities for laughter. Not to mock the afflicted, much less those who have passed. But to mock the absurdities that brought about their pain. While laughing—while producing that odd, cosmic sound—we remind ourselves that we’re embedded in something dense, vast, and mystifying, and something inherently beyond our comprehension.
If we can’t comprehend it, we can still laugh at it. If we cannot defeat it, we can laugh at it, still. Not because we’re fools (although we very often are), but because we are vulnerable. In a world dark like this one, laughter is hot, burning fire. It’s not cheap, but enriching. Not something foul, but something wholly sacred—holy.
Seen this way, laughter rises to a form of prayer.