When my son Solomon was studying architecture in Florence during his college years, his homecoming after a year abroad was a much anticipated event for our family. My most distinctive memory driving up to San Francisco International Airport that day, was my youngest daughter’s comment, “Mom, I can’t wait to hear Sol’s laugh. I’ve missed it so much.” It struck me then how much we are defined by our laughter or lack thereof.
In Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, the director brings out what is a seminal part of Lincoln’s character–his humor. Previous films have tended to depict the solemn Lincoln bearing the weight of a nation at war upon his shoulders, and while it is true that he did do that, and felt deeply the anguish of that responsibility, it was partly his love of laughter that enabled him to get through that tumultuous time. What Spielberg does so brilliantly is display the complex and multifaceted character of Lincoln. It wasn’t as though Lincoln wasn’t grieving with a nation watching the slaughter of tens of thousands of its sons–he was grieving with them because he knew their grief very personally. Lincoln had buried his beloved Willie (11) during his tenure in office, and had lost his son Edward (4) in 1850. Lincoln bore the nation’s grief and carried their sorrows.
But part of Lincoln’s genius lay in his ability to laugh in times of loss and despair. Much of Lincoln’s humor was self-deprecating (see an earlier post on this here), and he loved to poke fun at human foibles, contradictions and paradox. Amidst the strain of countless people vying for a piece of him, Lincoln nearly always found time to spin a yarn, recall a humorous anecdote, or crack a witty joke. From his cabinet members, to his fellow politicians, his family, and the telegraph boy in the midnight War Office, Lincoln lightened their load just a tad, and thereby bestowed worth and dignity on each individual.
Reinhold Neibuhr–the theologian of the late 19th and early 20th century, said “Humor is a prelude to faith and/ Laughter is the beginning of prayer.” There is a paradoxical connection between humor and the divine. Somehow, within our ability to recognize our conflicted natures, find humor in our contradictions, and accept the conundrums of life, there is the mysterious working of grace. I think Lincoln understood that.
Be sure to see this film. Take your children to see it. And in 2013 let’s purpose to live with a bit more humor and a lot more grace. Happy New Year.