“Breathe Wendy, just breathe”, are words I heard a lot my first year leading our AmeriCorps program.  I had no idea what I was in for.   I was working as a full-time volunteer Executive Director and I hired 20 people almost all of whom were straight out of a drug treatment facility.  If you met me in July or August of 2008, I probably offered you an AmeriCorps position.

I will never forget the day I first met Charles Fitzgerald.  At the time he was in his early 50’s, had a bad back, bad knees and was honest when he said that he really did not want to do manual labor.  I was recruiting people to help move furniture for our furniture bank program, so that shows you just how desperate I was when I offered him the job within 10 minutes of meeting him.  He had two things that I really needed.  He could legally drive and he made me laugh.  At the time, I did not realize just how important that latter gift would be.

Prior to launching our AmeriCorps program, I had had very little experience working with addicts.  So, when one by one my team began to relapse, I did not take it very well.  I felt I was somehow to blame.  I took each loss personally.  I can honestly say 2009 was one of the worst years of my life.  I actually tried to quit my job several times but there was no one to turn my letter of resignation in to.

So every day, Charles would find a way to make me laugh.  His funny toothless grin alone would make me smile.  There was just something about this guy.  He was making $6,500 a year and did not have a care in the world.  The world around us seemed to be caving in but he would just smile, point to the sky and say “God’s got this one.”

Charles has been making me laugh for almost four years now.  I am not talking about an occasional chuckle, I am talking about a full out belly laugh several times a day.   It is not that he knows a lot of jokes, it is more that he has a way of looking at our present reality, which is often a hard reality to face, and he adds a new twist that puts things into perspective.

For example, last week I wrote about getting thrown out of Foodland for taking pictures of pigs feet at the meat counter.  Charles and his buddy Rudy think this is the funniest thing they have ever seen.  I was so upset when it happened.  I did not want the owners to see me as a threat but Charles said to me, “Now, you are one of us.  Back in my addiction, I got thrown out of pretty much every place I ever went into.  I love that you are as crazy as me.”  He took my public humiliation and turned it into a badge of honor.  Now every time we drive past Foodland, he says, “Wendy you want me to make you some pigs feet for lunch?”  Then he bursts out laughing and we all join in.  Laughing with my teammates keeps me going.  It reminds me not to take myself or our work so seriously.

Over the years Charles’s light hearted spirit has kind of rubbed off on me.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still a type A, purpose driven, focused woman but now when I start to hyperventilate over something, I hear him whispering “Breathe Wendy, Just Breathe, God’s got this one.”   I think I have even developed a little bit of a sense of humor.  While I used to beat myself up over everything that went wrong, I can now occasionally just laugh at myself.   I still have a long way to go before I reach the level of humility of Charles, but he has been a great teacher.

Charles will tell you that his perspective on life was not always so rosy.  He spent 33 years on the streets lost in his addiction, in and out of jail and was not a very happy person.  He lost everything – his family, his home, and his sanity.  He wanted to die and was contemplating suicide.  God saved him from himself and now he says, “Every day above ground is a good day.”  Charles travels light.  He does not chase after material stuff, or hang onto resentments or anger.  He had everything stripped from him and survived.  I learned from Charles that to lighten up, you have to be willing to let go of things.  He makes it look easy but I know it was a painful process.

I recently went to a training class done by The Fund for Theological Education.  They said, “Sometimes you have to let go of something before you can receive something new.” They had us do a visualization exercise.  With our eyes closed they instructed us to grasp our seats as tight as we could.  They said to imagine that we were in a weightless room. By holding onto the chair which was anchored to the floor, we were keeping ourselves from floating away.  They then had us visualize different things that were painful, like a person who hurt us or a time when we felt like a failure.  They then instructed us to let go of the chair and to allow those things to float away.  I know this was all in my head but the sensation of feeling lighter and freer was a bit shocking to me.  It felt really good.

I think laughter gives us that same kind of release.  It reminds us to breathe and helps us to let go of whatever we are hanging onto.

There is no line in the bible that reads “Jesus laughed.”  But, I bet Jesus got a big kick out of the time when Peter tried walking on the water, or the time when his disciples doubted they could feed all those people, or saw the look on the disciples’ faces when they found that coin in the mouth of that fish.  I can see the disciples all sitting around the fire remembering the times they doubted, the times they thought it was hopeless and then Jesus did something totally wild and unexpected.  I can hear their full out belly laughs.  I bet Jesus and the disciples sit around heaven watching us doubt and take ourselves so serious, just for a good laugh every now and then.  We really are quite humorous creatures.

So when was the last time you had a good laugh?

 

Who is your Charles?  Who reminds you to lighten up?

 

This post is part of a Synchroblog on entitled “Lighten Up: The Art of Laughter, Joy and Letting Go.”  Below are the links to other posts on this topic.