I got together with some of my new friends the other night for dinner. They recently returned from the Peace Corps in El Salvador. Our sole purpose for the evening was to eat and share pictures and stories from our time abroad.
It was a great time and we spent much of it laughing and laughing and laughing. Afterwards, I was trying to figure out what made things so funny. Much of my time was spent wandering around a garbage dump with neglected children and sick people with incurable diseases. They worked with similarly impoverished people. Where’s the humour in all that?
I think the main reason for all our laughter is that in the context of our new life that old life seems absurd. When I was given a plastic plant or a pumpkin as a gift, I was touched. Now, I just find the whole thing so absurd as to be hilarious. (My friends got pieces of shellacked plywood posing as “art” for gifts. Those were also fantastic.)
We also had so many stories to tell of things that just wouldn’t fly in the U.S. Regular readers of my old blog may not know this but there are many stories of things I did in Itipini that I just never told on that blog because, well, I believe in not incriminating myself. Attitudes especially towards liability are different in South Africa and I didn’t know how to communicate that then. My friends had similar stories. Back in the U.S., where everyone is SO uptight about everything – like cleanliness and safety, to name two big ones – it just seems ridiculous what we did and how we did it.
I get the sense from many people at Yale that this place is pretty perfect. Sure, people grumble about this and that but this place is largely seen as the ideal of the values this culture espouses. Perhaps what was funniest about sharing our stories the other night was that they represent a subversive element in comparison to Yale. These stories of ours allow that poor people exist and should be treated as equals. They recognize that all is not well with the world and that we actually need to live and work with those people. They remind us of the need to get off the hill on which we so easily become complacent.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe laughter is just laughter. But in this context it was not only the best medicine but also a reminder of something more.