It was my senior year of college, and we were staying in a dorm room at the University of Illinois at the Urbana Missions Conference. The lights were out and we were trying to fall asleep. I don’t remember what we were talking about, and I don’t have a clue what I said in response. But I remember how she made me feel. It’s probably my gift of prophecy, but I feel that whenever you laugh you are looking for attention. Always embarrassed at the volume of my laugh, here was my worst fear confirmed: others thought it was intentional that I laughed that loud.
In this stuffy and crowded dorm room, bundled up in our sleeping bags, her words cut deep. She was accusing me of being an attention hog, and cloaked it in something spiritual—as if she couldn’t take credit for the harshness of the accession because it wasn’t of her. It was of God.
The truth was, I always hated my laugh. It was humiliating when the volume of my laugh would cross a crowded room and I saw heads turn as people wondered who was making all that noise. I can’t say I noticed it as a child. Everyone in my family laughed as loud as I did.
Both of my older brothers are built like linebackers, tall and broad with barrels for chests. So their laugh always felt larger than mine. My dad still sneezes with such volume and force that it makes me jump. There are moments I recall seeing my mother particularly tickled at something and, as heads turned and we joined her, I would see her hand move to cover her mouth. She knew how loud her laugh was, I suppose. Though we’ve never talked about it, it’s my prayer she never felt shame over that.
Laughter has always been a huge part of my life. And every time my family gets together and we tell stories, laughter abounds. A favorite story we still tell at Easter is “the year of the bunny ears.” Us kids sequestered in the house while the adults hid our Easter eggs. I remember seeing large pink bunny ears go by the window in our living room. Squealing with joy and surprise, I ran to tell everyone the Easter bunny was real and he was in our yard. Turned out it was just two of my uncles, who fashioned construction paper ears and attached them to a headband just to mess with our four-year-old brains. We still laugh when we think about how crazy they were to do that for us.
Christmas get-togethers with either side of the family included a house full of people, with cousins running around everywhere making noise and playing games. One Christmas, a rowdy game of spoons resulted in someone diving across the table and breaking the top clean in half. You can bet there was laughter then, and lots of it.
As cruel as we think children can be, I don’t remember any kids making fun of my laugh until I got older. But at some point, I noticed. When something funny happened and my laugh became uncontrollable, my face would flush because I knew people were looking. I hated the attention my laugh brought. And so I found myself floundering, worried about what everyone was thinking. And in that dorm room, my worst fears were confirmed. People thought I wanted attention and I used my laugh to do it.
Recently I told this story to a co-worker and she said, “But you don’t have a loud laugh. At all.”
“That’s because I’ve changed it since that night. I consciously laugh quieter in public because of what she said to me,” I replied.
I realize that when I laugh now I don’t think about how it’s softer and quieter than it was. I just laugh. I wonder at what point did my current laugh become part of me more than the beautiful, unrestrained laugh I was born with? What happened to that laugh? Will she ever return?
Cover photo by Tim Mossholder.