I was reading a book for our book club the other day, about a man who was on trial for murder, and the case the prosecution built to establish the man’s sanity.  The assistant Attorney General asked an expert witness in psychiatry to compare the accused with  someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  The physician asserted that one quality in particular spoke to the man’s sanity: “This is a man who enjoys a good joke.”

“…laughter is always something that is a shared experience. . . .One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don’t have shared humor with people around them.  Most of the time they are quite humorless.  Once in a , they’ll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment. But a rather sensitive marker of psychosis is whether people have enough of the same shared reality to not only understand the facts of one’s reality, but the subtle and social meaning and significance that is irony.”1

I had to contemplate that for a while, especially as it pertains to raising children and family dynamics.  What dawned on me was the importance of shared humor in family life: those little moments of silliness that others might not think funny at all, because (we’ll all said it) you had to be there.  But that’s just the thing: in a family, you were there when the joke first came into being.  The off-the-wall comment that becomes an anecdote told over and over again; the games we make up at the dinner table, like the time our family composed native American names for each other: “Runs Like a Grandmother;” “Hates to Lose Candyland,”  “Counts on her Fingers,” and (although my husband is loathe to admit it) “Sleeps While He’s Driving;” the odd gesture that hits everyone’s funny bone and is replayed endlessly for years later;  secret languages brothers and sisters make up to communicate with one another — “patchouli” meant yes, “patchouka” meant no, “bar-bar” meant something really, really sad or bad; and something multisyllabic and complicated that we tragically no longer can remember meant. . .the withering of a pine tree.  (“The withering of a pine tree” in a four-word language? Ah, but yes! With that one word, this developing but nevertheless four-word language implied promise! It was destined to be far superior to English, with its limited description of the stresses undergone by conifers.) Although it isn’t funny, I still remember with maternal poignance the moment my daughter, age 8, learned that friend in her ballet class was getting promoted to the intermediate level.  I told her quietly as she sat in the backseat of the car, and there was utter silence for thirty seconds.  When I turned to look at her, her big brown eyes were filled with tears. “Bar-bar,” she whispered.

Every night when our two had finished dinner and weren’t allowed to be excused while their parents were still eating, they would ask if they could put on a play for us to make the waiting less agonizing.  The large pocket doors would be slid shut between the dining room and the family room, and we would hear endless whispering and giggling from the next room as award-worthy theatrical productions were plotted and staged. Finally the pocket doors were slid back (Dad had to assist with that) and the play would begin.Invariably the entire performance would dissolve into shrieks of laughter shared by youngsters and adults alike. No two plays were alike, but they were all equally ridiculous.  

As the kids got older and we would travel together, we would hear them in the adjoining hotel bedroom, laughing uproariously at some silliness or another.  Is there anything more delightful than hearing your children make each other laugh hysterically?  I often imagine how God must feel when He sees us enjoying each other in that regard — and how He must grieve when we refuse to.

If shared humor is a sign of sanity, then surely shared humor in a family is the foundation of mental health for life.  Pray to have it in your family, and when you catch a glimpse of it, or hear those giggles in the next room, cherish it as the antidote to much of the world’s psychosis.