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Gene Weingarten: Amid life's horrors, sanity finds its roots in a laugh

WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, a friend of mine got some unnerving news about his health. I told him not to worry: The problem was caught early, medical science has such matters well under control, people no longer just up and die. I have a related condition, so, to further reassure my friend that his prognosis was good, I decided to consult the doctor who has been treating me for years. I called his office. He was dead.

It had been a heart attack, sudden and unexpected. Later that day, I told my editor, Tom the Butcher, how shaken I was by the news. I just could not get my doctor out of my mind. It was odd, I said: He was a gracious man and a dedicated, caring clinician, but the truth is that I barely knew him — we'd meet briefly once a year, he'd stick a finger up my keister, and that was that.

Tom listened to this gravely.

"Maybe you were a little in love with him," he said.

For about two minutes afterward, neither of us said an intelligible word; we were laughing too hard.

Horrified? Don't be. I'm pretty sure God isn't. Here's my theory: If he exists, then he's the one who has given all his creations whatever gifts they need to survive without fear in a world where suffering is commonplace and death is certain. For most species — weasels, for example — the gift is incredible stupidity. The gift of stupidity explains why dogs cannot understand that statues mean them no harm, why parakeets fall in love with mirrors and why the dung beetle never quite figures out the overwhelming horror of its existence. But the gift of stupidity serves a more important purpose: Animals are blissfully unafraid — they don't know they're going to die.

We humans don't have that gift. Instead, we have the gift of laughter. Humor is how we cope with our deepest fears. My doctor was exactly my age, by the way.

The funnier a person is, I think, the more clearly he or she senses the universal irony of our lives — that we are trapped in a world of insane design, where we not only are doomed to suffer and die, but where, for example, penis enlargement is a thriving international industry and solar energy isn't; where someone can get rich inventing automatic-flush toilets and spray-can cheese; where there is no parity between the diameter of the birth canal and the diameter of a baby's head; where a serious threat to Earth's environment involves cow burps and termite farts; where botulism has become a beauty product; where a wildly successful modern novel will eventually be read by one-eightieth the audience of a single episode of American Idol; where former President Richard Nixon's signature is on the moon; where people buy into one of dozens of fanciful myths about the origin and nature of the world, each more ludicrous and implausible than the last, but are willing to kill to defend theirs.

You know, the stuff of humor. Without it, we're lost. To me, this is the Meaning of Life.

Just yesterday, I got a phone call with dreadful news. My friend and neighbor, Kim, died in a car accident. She was 49, the mother of two and a woman who had turned her love of plants into a career. Kim was the heartbeat of my neighborhood, always around, trowel in hand, keeping the trees and shrubs alive for her neighbors and the city, keeping us all in touch with one another. One of the last times I saw her was when she knocked on my door to tell me that I'd left my headlights on.

There's a laugh in there somewhere. There has to be. I'll let you know when I find it.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Amid life's horrors, sanity finds its roots in a laugh 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:31am]

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