Laughter Is The Best Medicine

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Who doesn’t enjoy a good old belly laugh? Most people, if asked what they enjoy most it is spending time with friends and having a laugh. And why wouldn’t you? It’s just that sometimes it can feel as though laughter moments can be a bit thin on the ground, that there are unnecessarily long gaps between laughter. Did you know that, on average, a child laughs 300 times a day while an adult laughs only 17 times a day. Where does all that laughter go? I’m sure we’ve all got our own story on that one.

Except there is more to laughter than just cackling in the playground. I know that I got into trouble at school pretty much every day for laughing and as soon as they would tell me to stop it would turn into that belly aching, tears rolling down the face, uncontrollable laughter. It really really annoyed the teachers, perhaps they should have just joined in but then their quota was already down to 17 times a day whereas I still had a whopping 300 laughs a day to get through. I have memories of being collapsed in a heap, helplessly laughing with my friends and the crosser the teachers got, the more hysterical we got. Actually, it must have been fairly annoying… What they failed to point out was that laughing stimulates both sides of the brain and this enhances learning. So, if they had just left us to it, I might have come out of school with some exams to my name.

Smiling is a mild, silent form of laughing. Not quite so in your face and obvious but it still has the feel good factor and everyone feels better for being smiled at – unless it’s a real leary, scary ‘I’m coming to get you’ smile. I like to play Smile Tennis when I’m walking down the street. You smile at someone and then they smile back and then you watch them smile at the next person and you never know what a difference it might make to someone’s day. I haven’t been arrested yet…

Apparently, laughter lowers blood pressure, it reduces stress hormone levels and can boost the immune system. It also, allegedly, uses the same muscles as when you intentionally (?) exercise your abdominal muscles and it is much more fun than sit ups. It is a cardio workout and burns the same amount of calories as going for a sturdy stomp or ten minutes on a rower. You can even combine them and have a good laugh while you’re walking and then you come home super healthy and happy. It triggers endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers and it boosts T cells which fight off sickness. So laughter really is the best medicine.

But there’s more to laughter than that. When I have been in Calais and in Greece with refugees, one of the first things that struck me was the amount of laughter and how quick people were to laugh. Children coming off of the boats, having had the most horrific experiences, staring death in the face, were laughing within minutes of arriving on the beach and, any child’s laughter is infectious, they would soon have everyone else smiling and laughing. Laughter is incredibly powerful in managing difficult situations and reducing tension when emotions are running high. Laughter puts everything into perspective and I have never met people who are so able to put everything into perspective as the amazing refugees that I have met over the past few months. I have been bowled over by people’s resilience, their strength for their families and friends, their will for a future and, above all, their ability to laugh. We could all learn a thing or two from that.

I was in the camp in Calais again last week and spent an evening with a friend weeping with laughter over nothing in particular apart from laughing at the fact that we were laughing. Laughter brings people closer together, we must all have a friend that we can’t wait to see because we have a good old laugh with them. I spent an evening in a tent with a family who have possibly the cutest 3 year old in the world. He laughed and it was impossible not to laugh with him. His mum was saying that everyone wants to spend time with him, to be around him, because he is so quick to laugh. Heaven knows, he doesn’t have a great deal to laugh about in that place but, despite the abject poverty that surrounds him, that little boy is the richest person I have met in a long time. He is bursting with love and laughter and is surrounded by people who only wish the best for him. To the point that they are willing to put themselves through a living hell to get him to a better place.

I met a man with a broken foot, another casualty of trying to make the crossing to England. After explaining how he had done it, we were all laughing about it because laughter helps you deal more comfortably with stuff that could otherwise be overwhelming. I picture laughter as an image of a dog coming out of the water and shaking all the water off. Laughter shakes off the droplets of shame, humiliation and sadness. It is powerful stuff. Laugher is sociable, you generally do it with other people. Laughing wildly by yourself is a whole other ball game. The social power of laughter is immense, laughing together as a collective rather than laughing at someone or at someone’s expense. Laughing at someone is cruel, it’s unnecessary and incredibly unpleasant to be on the receiving end of. Laughing together creates a bond and intimacy that you carry with you forever.

But the best thing about laughter? It sounds the same across all cultures and it transcends all language barriers. The sign in the photo, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Ends Here,’ can be found at the exit of the camp at Calais. And it’s true, it can feel like liberty, equality and fraternity ends when you exit the camp because there it feels as though the laughter ends. Back into the world that seems to be filled with opinion rather than laughter. There is a saying, ‘The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion,’ so maybe instead of everyone spouting off about who is allowed to go where and why, how about just smiling and laughing with people. How about meeting up with someone with whom you have absolutely nothing in common, not one word of the same language and laughing together? I can’t help feeling that the world would be a better place for it.

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Humanity, what does it actually mean?

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The word humanity comes from the Latin Humanitas for “human nature, kindness.” The word humanity means all human beings collectively, the human race, mankind. Humanity, therefore, is the human race, which includes everyone on Earth. Why, then, are some people being reduced to living in conditions such as in the photo above when they are just 90 miles from London?

Nelson Mandela, and you’d be hard pushed not to admire the man, once said ‘To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity’ and that is exactly what is being denied to people on so many levels. I have just returned from my first trip of 2016 to Calais and Dunkirk and it is dire. The conditions are beyond anything you can imagine unless you have stepped foot in the place. Recent rain has reduced the place to a mudbath, shin deep, with rats crawling everywhere. Children are sick, well everyone is getting sick, and there appears to be no solution anytime soon. The police are not allowing any materials in to build temporary, and a bit more waterproof, structures, or sleeping bags or blankets. Anything that might create a bit of comfort basically. Volunteers are trying to sneak in desperately depleted donations to an ever increasing amount of families.

One of the reasons that there are an increasing amount of families is because they are leaving the camp at Calais. To seek sanctuary in Dunkirk seems unimaginable but at least it doesn’t get tear gassed every night. Families, and about 100 people arrived at Dunkirk just yesterday apparently, fleeing from somewhere that they have already fled to. So, basically, families flee war, make journeys from hell to try and reach family members and end up in Calais. Once people are in Calais it is no picnic trying to leave. Some people are seeking asylum in France but most are trying to reach family members in the UK. To do that they have to shove their children in the back of lorries in the hope that they can be smuggled across. The police presence in the camp in Calais has been ever increasing and they have become more and more liberal in their tear gas flinging about. The field with families in gets tear gassed every night and it is no fun, it is unbearable. People staying in the camp have tried to plead with the police to not throw tear gas at sleeping children but to no avail, it seems that it is a sport. More recently there has been nightly visits from the National Front throwing fireworks into the camp and there have been reported attacks on volunteers. The last two nights have seen the National Front thugs attacking refugees and then hiding behind police who are only too happy to shield them while the police have been using water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.

So, just to clarify, the police are there to protect us innocent civilians from the marauding swarm of violent refugees. I, personally, have never felt under any threat, or any danger from anyone inside the camp and have only come across kindness and gentleman like behaviour. I have no doubt that there are tricky characters but none so tricky as the people dressed up in black robocop outfits dispatching violence at a whim. The right wing extremists also come and attack refugees and volunteers. The police protect the people who are doing the attacking and join in with weapons of their own in case the people being attacked retaliate. Got it? Yes, those are the rules. And somehow, everyone seems to think that this is alright. It is utterly mind boggling. So, if you do go to Calais and find yourself in trouble, seek out a refugee who will be more than happy to help you and protect you from the people who are there to protect you from the refugees…

It’s a bit hard to see any humanity in this. I see it in the people’s eyes who continue to show kindness and resilience against all the odds. I see it in the volunteer’s eyes who look and feel as though they are trying to sweep back the sea with a broom, doing an impossible job but not giving up. It would seem that authorities are doing all that they can to take away any last shred of hope and every person needs some hope to keep going. Hope is what runs through even the most tragic of stories. I went to Dunkirk before Christmas and some families were excited because they were expecting to leave after Christmas. I couldn’t really understand what was being said. It seemed that they thought that people were coming to get them and that they only had a little more time in that hell hole. I thought that i had misunderstood, why would anyone from our government go and get them? That really would be a show of humanity and they certainly don’t seem to have much of that. The same families this time looked even more desperate. ‘We were told that the government was coming to get us, is it true? Is it a lie?’ I have no idea who told them this, smugglers? traffickers? a rumour got out of hand? but the desperation in that father’s eyes went right through to the middle of my heart.

Some people have asked to be deported back home, saying that they would rather die in their own country but with dignity. If the government wants to create extremists they are going about it perfectly. One volunteer has said that yesterday he saw a man lying in the mud and howling like an animal. Thinking he was hurt he went over but the man had just found out that his whole family had been killed back at home. And still we continue to not find any solutions to this so called ‘problem.’ Yes, of course more people are going to come. There is a f*****g humanitarian crisis going on across the world, people are fleeing for their lives, for crying out loud. I wonder if anyone (who is probably now deemed a hero) who saved children from the ovens of the holocaust thought ‘Oh no I’d better not save that child otherwise they’ll all want saving.’ Of course, they all want bloody saving. Who wouldn’t want saving? And yes, of course, resources are limited and we are an island and there isn’t room for everyone but we have to make the space for the sake of humanity. It’s not forever, it’s for now and it is happening right now.

I live near Cambridge, a city that has produced more Nobel prize winners than several countries combined apparently. How come we can produce people that can split atoms every five minutes but not find an answer to this complete humanitarian disaster that has unfolded upon our doorstep? It can’t be that difficult. People are offering to house families but the rules are so ridiculous that it is made almost impossible unless you have a spare house to dish out and not many people have got a spare house knocking about. Some but not many. We are inching towards a situation where, to offer kindness and compassion is out of favour with the very authorities that are meant to be acting and speaking on our behalf. Instead of shooting people with water cannons. Instead of depriving people of shelter, warmth and food (very very basic human rights). Instead of France and Britain batting this responsibility back and forth like a bad smell. Why not find a solution? There used to be a processing office in Calais where asylum claims were processed in a civil manner until 2003 (the Iraq war) and then Britain took the office away. Probably anticipating the deluge of asylum seekers that Britain was creating through starting a nonsensical war.

The word Humanity is also a word for the qualities that make us human, such as the ability to love and have compassion, be creative. There is absolutely none of that going on. The lack of human qualities being shown by our government, the french authorities, the police, some members of the public is heartbreaking it really is. In a cafe in Calais, this time, I met a lorry driver. A big northern lorry driver and we sat down and had the most heart warming conversation. French residents, a lorry driver and a volunteer all sitting down in the most civil of manners with a cup of tea exchanging views and personal experiences and learning from each other. Nobody taking it personally, nobody getting heated, just exchanging views and everyone coming away that little bit wiser and thanking one another for being who they are.

I understand people’s fears and confusion but I do not understand lack of humanity. There is no excuse for that. The people in Greece have the numbers of Calais and Dunkirk arriving on their shores every single day! Every single day. And yet they manage this with dignity and more than a sprinkling of compassion and Greece is on its knees financially and resource wise. How can we not manage what we have on our doorstep? It is a tiny fraction of what Greece is dealing with, what the rest of the world is dealing with and yet we treat the whole situation with disdain and fear and violence. It makes no sense whatsoever. I feel angry and completely heartbroken and only manage to hang onto my faith in the kindness of man by the actions of the volunteers that I see working their socks off and by the refugees themselves.