There is an idea of longstanding that humor has power as a curative. The Reader's Digest has long had a section entitled "Laughter: The Best Medicine," reflecting an old saying about this issue. In his book Laugh Again, Charles R. Swindoll approaches this idea from a Christian perspective, recognizing the many ills and sadnesses to which life is subject and finding in humor and laughter the means to overcome these ills and banish these sadnesses.
The author makes his intention clear in the Introduction when he says, "This book is about joy" (11). He wants people to relax more, release tension, and refuse to let negative circumstances dominate their thinking. Swindoll says we can all remember when life was joyful if we think back to our childhood, as he recalls his: "I neither expected much nor needed much. Life was to be enjoyed, not endured, and therefore every day I found something--anything -- to laugh about" (11). This was true even though he came from a poor family of five, suggesting that it is a condition of childhood and not related to social class or family situation, at least economic situation.
This raises the question that interests Swindoll in this book -- when does adulthood set in and why does it mean human beings surrender their sense of humor in order to be adults? He notes that as an adult, hardly a day goes by when he does not hear of some tragedy or problem which could easily change him from someone with a positive outlook on life to someone without one, but he does not allow this to happen. Clearly indicated is that most people do, and since this is the case, Swindoll sets out in this book to help people avoid this and to keep their positive outlook:
It is my firm conviction that a change is urgently needed -- which is precisely why I have taken up my pen to write again (14).
The book is structured around a series of ideas about how to accomplish this task, with most of the recommendations made being simple and relatively easy to accomplish. On the whole, the author calls for people to develop a positive outlook simply by deciding to do so. The problem is, as he makes clear, that most people have forgotten how to do this. He finds this to be endemic to Americans, noting that "our country seems to have lost its spirit of fun and laughter" (19). He says we can see evidence of this all around us. We can see it in people's faces, hear it in our music, see it on television and in movies, and read if in the newspapers. All aspects of the news business concentrate heavily on tragedy, trouble, and violence. Swindoll finds that this attitude has also become common in christianity:
Visit most congregations today and search for signs of happiness and sounds of laughter and you often come away disappointed... The one place on earth where life's burdens should be lighter, where faces should reflect genuine enthusiasm, and where attitudes should be uplifting and positive is the place this is least likely to be true (20).
Those who know how to take a positive attitude show that they do so not because they live in better circumstances but because they do not and yet can still see past their immediate circumstances. As Swindoll puts it, "people who consistently laugh do so in spite of, seldom because of anything" (22). Swindoll uses Paul of Tarsus as an example. Paul's well-known journey early in the Christian era involved numerous hardships and became more rugged as time passed until he was arrested by Roman soldiers and kept under constant guard. Swindoll cites his attitude as one to be emulated, for "he saw his circumstances as an opportunity to make Christ known as he made the best of his situation" (23). Swindoll cites several of Paul's letters involving the same theme, of how a human being can feel joy even under the most adverse circumstances.
Swindoll is not necessarily direct in the way he shapes his arguments and points to solutions. The chapter on Paul and on developing a positive attitude is entitled "Your Smile Increases Your Face Value," though the chapter has nothing to do with smiling as such and only uses this phrase as a humorous way of strengthening his main argument.
Swindoll says a sense of humor is essential at any age, and he further says that "a joyful countenance has nothing to do with one's age or one's occupation" (34), though many think otherwise. Indeed, there is no special characteristic or life situation which assures joy, nor is any such thing necessary for there to be joy. Instead, "joy is a choice" (34). Swindoll says it derives from "one's confidence on God -- that He is at work, that He is in full control, that He is in the midst of whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen again" (34). In saying this, Swindoll is following in a long line of people who find comfort in the idea that God is in control of their lives. Swindoll finds that those with this belief are also those with the greatest ability to laugh in the face of adversity. He offers as an example a woman whose husband was killed in a plane crash with three other men on their way back to Dallas, which left the city stunned and their widows force to begin new lives. One of the widows is a friend of Swindoll's, Lucy Mabery, and he says that she made the choice to start her life over with joy, and that "determined not to be bound by the cords of perpetual grief, Lucy remained positive, keen thinking, and joyful" (35).
This leads Swindoll to Paul's letter to the Philippians, which he says "brings a smile to the faces of all who read it" (35). He says this is because of who wrote it, for paul signs his name at the beginning rather than the end, as we do today. He includes Timothy, a man known and loved by the Philippians. Swindoll goes through the letter working rather hard to make it as amusing as he says it is, parsing each word in a way that allows him to write humorous descriptions and make humorous references to different ideas as he does. The effect is to make the reader think that Paul's letter might bring a smile not to everyone who reads it but to everyone who studies every word as Swindoll does. What Swindoll does show is how Paul's faith in God guides him and gives him confidence so he can experience joy even under the worst conditions.
Swindoll refers to "joy stealers," by which he means certain actions, attitudes, or states of mind which take joy away and produce misery. He cites three of these as common -- worry, stress, and fear, and he distinguishes among them. Worry is "an inordinate anxiety about something that may or may not occur" (40). Stress involves "intense strain over a situation we cannot change or control" (40). Fear differs from both in that it "is dreadful uneasiness over the presence of danger, evil, or pain" (40). The three share one common element -- they make things seem worse than they are.
Swindoll recalls his childhood listening to shows on the radio, one of which was Mr. District Attorney, which included in its opening a reading of a portion of the Declaration of Independence referring to our rights to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" (49). Swindoll sees the pursuit of happiness as a "dream that has died" (49). Why is this so? Swindoll says it is because "most people think that happiness is something that happens to them rather than something they deliberately and diligently pursue" (49-50).
What is needed, says Swindoll, is a positive mind-set. He says that the pursuit of happiness is an inward journey. Our minds give us back what we put into them, Swindoll suggests, noting that we have to deposit positive, encouraging, and uplifting thoughts so we can get back the positive, encouraging, and uplifting. Swindoll returns again to Paul, as he will throughout the book, and shows how a positive relationship with Christ nurtures positive values and feelings:
The secret of living is the same as the secret of joy: Both resolve around the centrality of Jesus Christ. In other words, the pursuit of happiness is the cultivation of a Christ-centered, Christ-controlled life (57).
Swindoll notes that life can be complicated, with dilemmas facing us every day. How we deal with them determines how we view the world and how we react to the possibility of joy. Some people deal well with what they encounter, seeing the world as either black or white, right or wrong. Swindoll does not -- he sees things as gray. The problems of life for such people leave them feeling unsettled and unsure.…