Cinco de Mayo and Resilience
Mexico lost the war, but won the battle. On May 5, 1862, with half as many men as the French, the Mexican soldiers of Puebla defeated their better-equipped enemy. Although their victory was short-lived, for the French regrouped and eventually established rule of the country, the May 5th battle is commemorated every year as Cinco de Mayo, honoring the boost in morale it gave the Mexican people.  The holiday symbolizes grit, perseverance, and resilience. It reminds us that, though threats may be great, when we come together, we can prevail.
I think of a family I met once while waiting to visit my son at a juvenile detention facility. There was anguish in the mother’s eyes as she shared their story. She, her husband, and two of their children waited in front of me to reach the clerk who would take their identification and allow them into the visiting area. The clerk would also take the money they had scraped together, money for their son.
They were Mexican. The boy was undocumented. He’d been arrested for something, I don’t remember what. Perhaps he’d gotten into a fight or stolen something. I recall thinking his crime seemed insignificant, especially since his punishment was to be sent back to the country where he’d been born, a place he couldn’t remember, where strangers spoke a language he didn’t know, and where he had no friends or relatives. All his family could do was give him some money and pray.
I can’t imagine having a child so cruelly torn away. How did this mother keep from falling apart? Where did she find the strength to persevere? We often gain wisdom from adversity, come to understand kindness in a new way. Is such growth worth the suffering?
Sorrow Is Better than Mirth
In Ecclesiastes, we are told, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (7:3 NRSV).
How can we understand this in the face of that mother’s agony, that teenager’s fear? How can sadness make us glad?
This section of Ecclesiastes is about wisdom and foolishness. “It is better to go the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart,” reads the verse before (Eccl 7:2 NRSV). The verse after reads, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Eccl 7:4 NRSV).
We learn from that which breaks our heart. We learn to cry, and we also learn to laugh. It is foolish to try to avoid the truth of our mortality by fleeing to the “house of mirth.” This scripture reminds us that if we are willing to enter the “house of mourning” and move through the suffering of this life, we can overcome our losses. We can be richer in spirit and stronger in heart. This is how we win the war.
Learning to Laugh
If Ecclesiastes is to be believed, we can be happier, too. In an interview with The New York Times writers, Michael Paulson and Nicole Herrington, the playwright Jordan E. Cooper said, “I honestly believe if this world didn’t have pain, we would have nothing to laugh about.” 
Our sorrow gives us a perspective we wouldn’t have otherwise. When we understand sadness, when we acknowledge loss, we are less likely to make fun “of” another and instead laugh “with.” Such laughter arises not out of mockery, but our of joy. Unless we have first known the dusty darkness of pain, we cannot know joy, nor the honest, bubbling laughter that comes from joy. It’s more than just relief, though. It’s a transformation that allows us to see the sweetness beneath the harshness of death, desperation, and abandonment.
For Ecclesiastes also reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1 NRSV). This includes, “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4). It may be best to enter the “house of mourning,” but we cannot live with death always on our minds, for most of the time, our work is to live, fully and vibrantly and laughingly.
Many Ways to Laugh
As B. B. King wrote in “Mean Old World,” sometimes we “laugh just to keep from crying.” When we ache deeply, yet dare not show that pain to the world, we may smile and laugh. Perhaps we even convince ourselves that we’re okay. Is this the laughter of fools? Or is it the laughter that bubbles up in a world that is mean, where the absurdity is so shocking, all we have left is the harsh, despairing bark of laughter.
This is the kind of laughter that shatters the control of a tyrant, that arises out of the shared power of the poor, the immigrant, the dispossessed. What can possibly be funny when all you ever had has been taken from you, including your belief in justice, beauty, your own humanity? Making fun of kings and queens, of slave owners, of bullies, of autocrats may be crude, but when you only have the sky, the stark glare of the sun, and your beating heart, such laughter allows you to hold onto the power of being human and alive. It helps you feel strong, as if you matter, to God if to no one else.
There are so many ways to laugh. We can condemn through our laughter, and we can rejoice in our shared humanity. Some people, their souls so fractured they fear love and strength so who mock whomever they can and attack everyone else. Laughing at such absurdity can help us find our own power. To laugh “at” someone else may not always be wrong.
Being unkind is always an unkindness. Acting out of bitterness is always bitter. Yet if we laugh in the face of totalitarianism, even in the face of death, we may find we win the battle. We might even win the war.
World Laughter Day
Yet laughter itself, directed not at anyone or anything, but simply offered as song, as sound, can bring us healing.
On World Laughter Day, we are invited to laugh not because we know sadness, not because we feel broken inside, not even because we feel happy, but simply because the act of laughing brings peace to our hearts and encourages peace in the world. Celebrated on the first Sunday in May, this holiday encourages us to practice laughter yoga. Developed by Madan Kataria, laughter yoga is best practiced in a group. Gather together some friends and simply start giggling. The silliness will spread until there are honest guffaws around the room. Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we put a small smile on our face each day, for this will change the neurochemicals in our brains and make us feel better.
Is this “the house of mirth” that Ecclesiastes talks about? Is this foolishness? Or does such laughter deepen relationships and encourage life?
My first child was born on May 5. He gave a rousing wail when he slipped out of my body and was lifted up in barbaric triumph by the presiding doctor. So often our entry into the world is harsh and despairing. Yet, if we are fortunate, we are soon enveloped in warmth. It didn’t take my son long to calm down after he was placed on my chest. Perhaps my joy touched him, bathing him in celebration, freedom, and laughter, like a good Cinco de Mayo baby should be.
Yet not everyone is fortunate. Children die; mothers reject their infants. The world is cold and mean. Laughter can warm us so we can face the dark and ugly streets.
Trapped in the House of Mirth
One of my favorite songs when I was a child was “Arkansas Traveler.” There’s an old man fiddling on his porch. The rain is falling hard, and his roof is leaking. His feet are getting wet, his cabin is floating away, yet the man doesn’t care.
A traveler stops to listen to the fiddling, for a jolly song it is, yet he can’t help from telling the musician that he needs to mend his roof.
The fiddler replies that he can’t fix it at the moment because it’s raining.
So, the traveler informs him, he should patch it when it’s sunny.
The homeowner keeps fiddling. “Get along said he for you give me a pain. My cabin doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain.”
At the time, I thought that was a great way to get out of doing work. Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Of course, only a fool would let his house decay around him. Only a fool would so live for the present moment that he wouldn’t concern himself with rotting boards and crumbling posts.
Our House Is Falling Apart
But that’s exactly what we humans are doing. Our house is decaying in so many ways. Whether it’s climate change, insurrection, totalitarianism, increased poverty, our house is falling apart, floating away, and we’re fiddling. Whether it’s raining or it’s not, we can’t be bothered to put out the effort to make things better.
So what do we do? We laugh. The joke is on us, after all. We might as well enjoy it. In our focus on our short-term comfort, our personal security, we may be winning our battles, but we’re losing the war. The house to mirth is far more comfortable than that of mourning. We refuse to engage with reality. That would be too sad. So we pretend we don’t need to patch our roof.
Yet mending our roof, keeping our home firmly connected to the ground, does not guarantee a loss-free life. We cannot avoid the house of mourning forever. Sorrow is important, it is part of life. If Cooper is right, our laughter arises out of our sadness. We could not laugh if we did not cry. There is a time for everything, yet unless we accept everything that is our life, we will have nothing. We can’t claim just part of our experience.
To laugh, we must know how to weep; to dance, we must have mourned. Perhaps our house needs to float away before we can fiddle with our whole hearts as the gypsy’s do, with such haunting sounds the listener is filled with the romance of life, the agony of love, and the ache of laughter. It would be nice if we could avoid disasters, but that is not our way.
Sometimes We Win
Yet disasters are usually not the end of the story. Yes, one day our sun will explode, and there’s no hope we’ll survive that, but the nova’s a very long time away. In the meantime, no matter what happens, life is likely to survive on our earth, one way or another. We homo sapiens are incredibly adaptable, which is both a blessing and a curse. We tend to rally.
In Mexico, the French occupation did not last long. At the end of the Civil War, when the Union’s win in 1865 meant the United States didn’t have to fear French support for the Confederates, the United States went to the aide of its southern neighbor. Because of this, Napoleon finally withdrew his troops. In 1867, Mexican liberals captured and executed Maximilian, the emperor Napoleon had installed in Mexico City. Mexico had won the war. 
They wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t persevered. Nor would they have won if they hadn’t made friends and found allies.
We need allies, too, to help us cope with life’s losses. With support, we can enter the house of mourning, dive deep into the sadness, honor our losses, and find our way to a wisdom that is more profound than exists in the house of mirth.
Without Tears, There Is No Life
We come into this world in tears. My second child, when he was born, lay silently on my lap as if awed by the light, and he did not cry. Not until the midwife prodded and poked him did he gasp and wail. I felt angry. Here was my perfectly calm and content newborn being annoyed just so he would cry. If our instincts are healthy and natural, we parents want to protect our children from suffering. There’s nothing wrong with this. Yet he wasn’t breathing, and if we don’t breathe, we die. To survive, my son needed to cry. Sadness is the a part of life.
Yet how much pain is the right amount? Do some people experience too much? Is that why they hunker down, as if in siege, surviving in their corner alone, the war lost long ago? What does it mean to be broken beyond repair, to languish in a sorrow beyond laughter, even beyond life?
That mother whose son was being deported had other children who needed her. From our conversation, I gathered that she had the strength to contain her sadness, to set it aside so she could love them, to laugh to keep from crying. She would win the battle.
I hope she also found the time to enter that house of mourning so she might, one day, win the war. For to win the war, we must enter that sorrowful house, weep when it is time to weep. Without knowing sadness as the deepest and cruelest thing, we cannot fully laugh. There is a season for everything. We cannot rush the turning of the earth; nor can we rush the turning of our hearts.
Laughing Because We Are Alive
The world brings us sadness, but laughter, too. If sorrow is better than mirth, still happiness has its place. Celebration is part of life. If we do not have a reason to laugh, if the pain in our heart is too heavy in this moment to even think of smiling, we can, if we wish, force ourselves to mimic the sounds of joy. Mr. Kataria explains that even forced laughter brings us peace. The brain believes what our body tells it. If we smile, we will feel lighter. If we laugh, we feel happy.
Yet an honest and wholesome laughter can also bring us deeper into our true selves. We may find, if we make ourselves laugh, that when the laughter subsides, the tears can flow. In this way, we can be nourished and healed. Then, when we laugh, we may find we do so not because something is funny or crazy or broken or skewed, but simply because we are alive.
In faith and fondness,
- “Cinco de Mayo,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo, accessed 5/3/19.
- Paulson, Michael and Nicole Herrington, “How these Black Playwrights Are Challenging American Theater,” The New York Times, April 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/theater/black-playwrights-theater.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_rr_20190426&nl=race-related&nl_art=1&nlid=86487634emc%3Dedit_rr_20190426&ref=headline&te=1 , accessed 4/30/19.
- De Lay, Brian, “Mexico Benefited From the Civil War,” The New York Times, July 2, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/07/02/who-won-the-civil-war/mexico-benefitted-from-the-civil-war, accessed 5/4/19.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved