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Appalachian Spirituality: “Humor as Therapy”

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This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).


 I remember, as a kid, sitting on the front porch of my great-grandparent’s home. My grandfather was a storyteller and a notorious prankster. It took me years to realize the full extent of his pranks which often came through his stories.  At the ripe age of six, how was I to know that he didn’t end World War II with just a shotgun and a hand grenade? You mean he didn’t march into President Harry Truman’s office and instruct him on how to win the Pacific theatre of the war?  

I was a scatter-brained “young-un” who would often wander off into my magical land of daydreaming.  My grandfather would quickly recognize my aloofness and call me back in with the same project.  “Jason,” he’d say as he handed me a salt shaker he kept next to his rocking chair, “take this salt shaker and go out and catch some birds.”

[Pause: You have to be wondering what this means. Birds and salt shakers?  My grandfather had fully convinced me that if you could sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail you could catch it.  Looking back I realize that if you’re close enough to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail, then you’re close enough to catch the dang thing.  At six years old, I believed salt held magical properties that made even the largest bird unable to fly. Give me a break, I was a kid!]

Humor was a defining characteristic of my grandfather’s life. His life was one of Appalachian poverty. He lived close to the land spending many days in the Virginia sun. He had stories and humorous anecdotes for everything. To this day, he remains one of my favorite people of all time.

Looking back on the wrinkled man sitting in his old metal chair, I realize that his humor and stories were his way of making a coherent life out of a lot of experiences that didn’t make sense. He was intimately tied to land but, through World War II, had traveled the world. He was a peaceful soul who had seen combat. My grandmother annoyed him to no end but you dare not speak poorly of “his bride.” His life was a collection of odd jobs, trinkets, and stories. Grandaddy Joe’s sense of humor kept his sanity amid a life of hardship, toil and Appalachian poverty. Jones notes: 

We have a good sense of humor, although it is sometimes delivered in a deadpan fashion, in keeping with our sense of modesty and understatement. Humor is more than fun; it is a coping mechanism in sickness or hard times. We tend to poke fun at ourselves, saying self-deprecating things like, “I was hiding behind the door when the looks were passed out.” Our humor is tied up with our concept of the human condition. We see humor when people make pretensions to power and perfection and inevitably fail. (Jones 1994, Kindle location 280)

Humor was his therapy to the “human condition.” The naive six-year-old was just the newest audience to his comedy show. Despising pretense, modest to the nth degree, self-deprecating all the time, such was the witness of Grandaddy. His humor was his gift to me. A gift at which I attempt to bear witness today.

As I reflect back on my childhood naiveté I am reminded of how we so often treat our Christian walks as we journey through this world we call home.  How often are we chasing after birds with a salt shaker as nothing but a distraction to the great Story that is being told around us (whether it be through a senile great-grandfather, pastor, parent, or friend)? C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (Lewis 1949, 25).

Looking back on my six-year-old self, I realize that a lot of my life has been about birds and salt shakers. If I just follow this bird a little longer, hide behind this shrub, and jump out shaking my salt shaker, then I may just get it!

In the end my distracted ways just led to bunny trails of distraction, frustration, and getting lost! The true magic was the humorous storyteller sitting on the front porch regaling his grandchildren with stories of minnows turning into whales and nautical adventures that faced the greatest sea serpents a young mind could fathom.

My “birding” led me away from the story teller.  My daily distractions lead me away from the Great Story and the Great Storyteller who continues to invite me into an adventure of not just nibbling at the table of the world but proclaiming and awaiting an extravagant feast at a “holiday by the sea.”


 

This ends this series. It has been a good reflective series for my personal spiritual journey. My thanks to the many comments offered by many friends. I will be taking a break from blogging for about a week. After which time, I will be changing to a Tuesday/Thursday rhythm. My next post will be up on Tuesday, April 3.

Have a blessed Easter, my friends!

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