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“We must be in heaven, man! There is always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area” – The persuasive power of laughter

Oct 17, 2011 “We must be in heaven, man! There is always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area” – The persuasive power of laughter

Those who actually attended Woodstock know full well how overcrowded a be-in it was. In the middle of it all, a partially-toothless (from being beaten at demonstrations?) Hugh Romney announced to the crowd:

"What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000… We must be in heaven, man! There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area."

Early on in my criminal defense career, I often thought of courthouses as disaster areas, wreaking too much injustice on criminal defendants. I learned that I can reverse this disaster sometimes for individual clients, but viewed the disasters as continuing. I tried looking at the matter more as a matter of lighting a candle to reverse injustice than cursing injustice. Sometimes I wondered whether I was somehow giving the green light to the injustice by participating in the courthouse, but eventually recognized that until I can do something to overhaul the court system for the better, I also need to work for justice one client at a time.

Two years after becoming a public defender lawyer, I had a new office mate who exemplified the power of more effective persuasion, more harmonious and effective dealings with clients and everyone else, and more fulfilling living through humor, and more importantly, through infusing one’s every action and thought with one’s entire being, wonder, and laughter. And even with such gifts, still he would often kvetch about his own life while helping to inspire and invigorate others. From my perspective, his gifts heavily eclipsed the kvetching while I empathized with him about the source of his dissatisfactions.

The first day I shared an office with this fellow public defender lawyer, we were shooting the breeze. One of the topics that came up was nose rings. Five minutes later, he came right up to me in a milk-through-nostrils moment, with a modified ring in his nose made from a paper clip. He is like a kindly Hawkeye who cared about his criminal defense clients. He can turn a lunch at a diner into an Ernie Kovacs extravaganza. One day we acted like sophomoric hyenas jumping up and down on our desks, chairs, and floor performing our own a capella air guitar version of Led Zep’s 1970 song "A Whole Lotta Love".

I returned to private practice. Then, one day, my office mate completely switched professional sides. He moved many states away, joining a prosecutor’s death penalty appellate division, fighting to keep the state’s death chamber doors wide open and continuing state-sanctioned murder. I do not think he chose the new job out of any ideology, but still he chose it. As I blogged here three years ago, I found a way to remain friends with my former office mate, who later moved to a general prosecutorial appellate office rather than doing death penalty appeals, because he was already beyond humanized in my mind and being. I still struggled with having a friend doing death penalty prosecutorial work, though.

This friend inspires me more than anyone else to break out of grayness through the power of laughter, humor and optimism. When particular judges, prosecutors and cops seem to be urinating on the Constitution, sulking does no good, and I have no time to sulk. That is the point more than any other time for me to take a t’ai chi/non-attached/non-duality approach to fixing the situation as best I can. With that inspiration, one day I was trying to persuade (with ultimate success) a judge who I never saw smile before, not to jail my client for driving 92 miles per hour on the George Washington Parkway. Summoning the inspiration of my office mate in the spur of the moment, as I told the judge how my client did not notice how powerfully his then-new BMW went from 9-to-90 mph, I threw in: "Maybe he would have been wiser to drive a Ford." An audience member saw the judge covering his apparent smile over the joke. Well-placed humor can relieve tension and help persuasion; of course, poorly-placed humor can ricochet with terrible collateral damage.

Abbie Hoffman promoted having fun during the struggle for justice. He also had manic depression, and apparently committed suicide at fifty-two. My office mate’s kvetching seemed incongruent with his humor. Gil Scott-Heron lamented the crime of people in the bottle, but went downhill smoking crack in his darkened home, which apparently relieved his severe orthopedic pain. The problem about looking up to people with essential messages is that, as humans, they are fallible and may fall. The trick is not to fall along with them.

In many ways, the Sixties was the best of times and the worst of times for me. Those in the counterculture saw no need to be tied down by what they were trying to replace, so many of them spread their wings fully and positively. Many others in the counterculture, though, engaged in plenty of harmful and self-destructive activity. Jim Morrison, Lenny Bruce, and Jimi Hendrix are among the Sixties icons who met with untimely deaths.

Still with us from the Sixties are Hugh Romney/Wavy Gravy — possibly not an icon but certainly a very identifiable face of Woodstock — and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, who calls Wavy Gravy a holy being.

At some point, Romney started donning clown makeup, and B.B. King named him "Wavy Gravy" before that became a Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Although I have not gotten into much depth about Wavy Gravy, I was completely taken by the trailer and movie review by Stephen Holden I just found to Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (2009).

Wavy Gravy inspires to find light and humor during the worst adversity, proclaiming: "Laughter is like the valve on the pressure cooker. If you don’t laugh, you’re going to end up with beans on the ceiling."

As more serenely stated by Thich Nhat Hanh — whom I will experience live next Tuesday at the Warner Theater — Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

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