The following has been excerpted from A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned From My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa by Tony Cointreau, who spent 12 years volunteering in Mother Teresa’s hospices, including Gift of Love in the city of New York, featured in this article.
I doubt that I would have lasted one day, much less 12 years, working for Mother Teresa at Gift of Love or in Calcutta, if I had not been surrounded by people with a sense of humour. Not only did the nuns spread joy and laughter throughout the house, but it was Mother Teresa’s not-so-secret weapon for bringing happiness to the poor and the dying. If one of her Sisters was looking gloomy, she refused to let her leave the convent that day. She thought those in need had enough troubles without a sad-faced nun in their midst.
The Sisters found laughter in as many ways as they found their joy. It was in the simple things of everyday life—the silly things that we might overlook while trying to impress everyone with our brilliance and charm. They had no agenda except the joy of living every moment of life.
Their humour was so infectious that the dying men in the house were more than happy to join in. How could the patients have the same focus on their sickness and pain when they were busy being a part of the laughter that surrounded them every day?
Laughter: An effective medicine
Doctors have also advocated laughter as an effective medicine against infection and disease. There is no question that it is a comfort to anyone in any stage of their illness. It can also open up new lines of communication that were not possible before. How do we know that lighthearted banter is not uplifting to a patient in a coma? Why would they want to be surrounded by sadness? A depressive attitude around a sickbed does nothing positive for anyone. Even the caregivers need a way to release the pressures involved in attending to the needs of the dying. Or I should say especially the caregivers, since they are sometimes the key to the patients’ attitude towards their illness.
This does not mean that we did not face the tragic realities of life and the specter of death that hovered over the house. But no one had to give their power over to it. Most of the men were so young that they welcomed the opportunity to laugh every chance they had. They may have been dying of AIDS, but they were going to live on this earth and enjoy whatever they could while they were still here. And since some of them had never had a proper childhood, I always encouraged them to be silly and play the practical jokes they had not enjoyed as children.
Letting the inner child emerge
Wilfredo was a bright, uneducated young man who had emigrated from San Salvador as a child, and for the last 10 years he had worked carrying bottles up and down from the basement in a bar. Now, at Gift of Love, he was more than eager to express himself and let the kid emerge.
One morning, I was washing breakfast dishes in the tiny, windowless room with the three sinks: one to boil the dishes, one to wash them by hand with bleach and soap, and one to rinse them in. While sweating and working, I noticed that the lights kept mysteriously going off, leaving me in total darkness. I had no idea who was responsible until I saw a red sleeve slip inside the doorway, switch off the light, and then quickly disappear. The next time it happened, I ran into the hallway in time to catch Wilfredo, in his red jacket, running down the stairs, giggling and laughing like a little kid. He loved every moment of the big deal I made out of what I was going to do when I caught up with him.
I also suspected that Wilfredo was the instigator of the giggling that often took place during the afternoon hour of prayer in the lounge.
Roberto, a sweet little guy who in spite of a clubfoot ran all over the house carrying an IV that looked bigger than he did, started giggling every day while we prayed. When I later asked him what was so funny, he answered me in French (which he didn’t speak) and I answered him in Spanish (which I didn’t speak). So our silly conversation was hardly enlightening.
The next day when Roberto started a prayer, I saw Wilfredo, with an innocent look on his face, surreptitiously reach over, grab Roberto’s foot, and tickle it. This time I don’t believe that the Sisters were as amused as I was, but I loved the fact that these two could still act like the kids they had never had a chance to be.
Mother Teresa’s advice
In our society we are inundated with violence and negativity every time we turn on the television, go to the movies, or see the video games we allow our children to play. We mustn’t forget that we have the option of being selective in our choice of entertainment. Sometimes I think Mother Teresa had the right idea when she said, “My tabernacle is my ‘television.'” She preferred to commune with God rather than waste her life in pursuit of mindless entertainment. It was what sustained her and gave her the strength to follow her calling.
In spite of the harshness of the environment she worked in, Mother was never the dour and unyieldingly serious woman many people think of her as having been. Her sense of humour was one of the most powerful gifts she possessed.
She once wrote to me in a letter:
“. . . Be kind, show kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile. . . to all who suffer and are lonely, give always a happy smile.”
And she didn’t stop with just a smile. She also knew the healing power of laughter. It was one of the many tools she used in her homes for the sick and the dying throughout the world—a very effective tool that costs nothing.
To read more about how humour can enrich our lives, take a look at LAUGH YOUR WAY TO HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS: An exploration of the complex yet uplifting nature of humour»