Letters From Our Pastor

Laughter and the Plague: A Postcard from the Socially Separated

April 7, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

There’s an old saying that Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy. This is not always true, but it’s true enough.


So, what do we do when the tragedy is in the present and not in the past? Can we still laugh?


If you have remained plugged into the virtual world of the internet — and apparently you have been or you wouldn’t be reading this — you have probably received examples of pandemic humor. Some attempts are lame. Some in poor taste. And some are great. Some of you have sent me some of the best.


Each time I receive one, I laugh. Sometimes I laugh a lot. Like this: 😆😂🤣


But after the laughter subsides, I also sometimes feel guilty. I ask myself, “Should I be laughing at this at a time when people are isolated, frightened, sick, and dying, and when brave health care workers are risking their lives to save other people’s lives?”


Years ago when I kept up my certification as a counselor (that’s among the things I let go, because frankly I’m too directive to be a good counselor), one of the best workshops I participated in was with the late Dr. Ed Friedman. Ed was one of the pioneers in the field of Family Systems Theory, a field of psycho-therapy that treats the entire family organically as the “patient” or “client,” rather than singling out individuals in the family for therapy. Ed was a brilliant person, scary brilliant, and sometimes just scary. One of the most important things I learned from him was that seriousness can be pathological. And the family systems that are stuck in seriousness tend to be the sickest.


It is very hard to learn new things, to gain the kind of perspective we need to imagine a future beyond the threats we face, and to avoid the tunnel-vision that keeps us from seeing options, when we are caught-up in a highly serious system. Anxiety feeds on such seriousness. It spirals upward, the more serious we become.


Reflecting on Dr. Friedman’s insights, I have come to believe that nurturing our lighter side may be just the right formula to fight the pandemic of anxiety that has accompanied the pandemic of COVID-19. The old saying, “Humor is the best medicine,” just may be wisdom whose time has come.


Yesterday, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, two of the funniest humans on the planet, were engaged in a video phone conversation on television. They reflected on the horrors they have seen (both of them were soldiers in the Second World War). Brooks said, “If we could beat Hitler, we can beat this.” Then he gave some advice. Turn off the news and turn on “Young Frankenstein” (the film he wrote with the late Gene Wilder).


This week, we have been told, is likely to be the worst week we’ve seen in the pandemic. I’m not going to tell anyone not to remain informed. Of course not. But I am going to highly recommend interspersing news you’re watching with outrageously funny films (“Some Like It Hot” for example), listening to funny podcasts and radio shows (like “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me!” Or reruns of old “Car Talk” or “Prairie Home Companion”), or reading something that will make you laugh so hard the tears roll down your legs.


I’m NOT GOING to suggest some of my favorite outrageously funny authors and books because it wouldn’t be appropriate for me as your pastor to recommend the books that make me laugh hardest. Sometimes they are full of inappropriate language and improper activities. Here’s a list of the books I’m not going to recommend:


David Sedaris (pretty nearly anything he’s written);

Carl Hiaasen, his various mystery novels about south Florida (my favorites are “”Razor Girl” and “Bad Monkey”; I’ve read all of his novels)

Jenny Lawson, “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” (maybe the funniest book I’ve ever read, and as your pastor I emphatically do not recommend that you read it. It is in the very worst of bad taste);

James Hynes, “Publish and Perish” and “The Lecturer’s Tale” (especially funny for those of us who have served in academics);

Mary Carr, “The Liar’s Club”;

David Lodge, “Small World” and “Nice Work” (again, campus humor);

Bill Bryson, “Notes from a Small Island” and “The Road to Little Dribbling”;

Mary Roach, “Stiff” and anything else she writes (Roach is the funniest science writer ever; don’t skip her footnotes); and

Clive James, “Unreliable Memoirs”.


I CAN recommend the compendium of New Yorker cartoons, and Dilbert, and, of course, The Far Side, all of which are widely available.


Michael Jinkins
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church