Humour is a tricky business at the best of times. You scribble thoughts on bits of paper in some vain hope they’ll bring a laugh when you test them on a stage. Sometimes the audience snickers. Sometimes they boo. For 28 years, I’ve made a living making people grin. And then COVID banged on the door. I was exhausted from a heavy speaking schedule. Stay home? Are you serious? Bring it on.
Each morning at breakfast, I tried out new material on my long-suffering wife Ramona. “Honey, you’ve always been there for me,” I said. “During the energy crisis of the ‘70s we met. During the recession of the ‘80s, we married. We weathered Y2K together. And the crash of 2008. And now here we are hunkered down indoors, six feet apart, together. I may be wrong, but I think you’re bad luck.” Thankfully, she didn’t boo. She laughed.
And, for a while, humour was easy to find.
“One day we’ll tell our grandchildren about The Great Paper Shortage of 2020,” I said. “They won’t believe us. We’ll tell them how people completely lost their minds and began buying toilet paper like the virus had wiped out every tree on earth and our mothers said, ‘There will be no more paper for you. You must use leaves and tree bark and old Sears catalogues. Unless you run real fast and load up.’ That’s how we ended up in back alleys talking to criminals: ‘Hey man. Do you have a line on some TP? You do? How much? A hundred bucks? Sounds reasonable to me. I’ll take eleven dozen.’
‘Grandpa’s making stuff up again, Mom,’ the grandkids will say. ‘It’s time for his meds.’”
As COVID dragged on, the world went crazier than a grocery cart full of toddlers. My normally good humour gave way to sarcasm. “Thank goodness the government put away billions just for this,” I said. “Imagine if they didn’t have all that money saved up. I mean, what would have happened if they were in debt?”
Soon 100 speaking engagements were cancelled and anxiety arrived, with a glass of whine and a side order of bitterness. I even whined about hard butter. One night I said, “My electric toothbrush died, and now I have to move my arm.” When Ramona stopped laughing, she said, “We have so much to be grateful for. You start.”
You couldn’t walk six steps without bumping into the slogan, “Stay Safe.” So I hand-crafted a plaque for our kitchen: “Stay thankful.” Radical gratitude began to characterize our conversations: “What are you thankful for?” “Food.” “My next breath.” “We still have toilet paper.” “FaceTime with grandkids.” “The chance to share God’s love with others on the radio while we’re locked down.”
One day in late April, I said, “I’m pretty excited about my car. I just got 43 days to the gallon.”
I was four or five when I told my mother, “I wanna grow up and be a comedian.” She paused from whatever she was up to and said, “Well, you can’t do both.” She was right. You can’t grow up and do what I do. Each day I go looking for laugh-worthy tidbits to share in print and on radio. We all do well to go looking for the good. We determine so little in life, but we can determine our focus. And it is simply impossible for bitterness and gratitude to coexist.
In Sacramento, California, a ticket agent inadvertently over-sold a Women of Faith weekend by 1,500 seats. It was a wee bit of a problem. So they exchanged the chairs on the main floor for smaller, plastic ones. It looked a bit like a boxing match, chairs right up to the stage. Many would have to crane their necks like those in the front row at the movies. Organizers phoned all the ladies beforehand to alert them, then re-seated them Friday night, apologizing profusely.
But before long the complaints arrived. Some were uncomfortable. Some were angry. So organizers asked the next speaker if she would mind apologizing again on behalf of the organizers. She agreed.
Her name is Joni Eareckson. She is a quadriplegic. Paralyzed as a teenager from a diving accident in Chesapeake Bay, Joni’s story is one of triumph – even joy – amid the trials of paralysis.
Wheeled onto the platform, this is what Joni said.
“I understand some of you are not sitting in the chairs you expected to be sitting in tonight. Well, neither am I. And I’ve been in mine for more than 30 years.” Then she added softly, “I have at least 1,000 friends who would give anything to be sitting in the chair you are in if only for tonight.”
A hush fell over the room. No one complained after that. In fact, many said it was one of the most memorable events of their life.
I’ve spent time with Joni. I know for a fact that her gratitude is a moment-by-moment decision. And joy grows best in the soil of thanksgiving. Always has. Always will.
Thanks to my wife, I’ll remember COVID as a season when we struggled to stay thankful, and often succeeded. Like the time I told a friend, “I just went into a bank with a mask on without getting arrested.”