Who’s laughing?

Long ago, a song with cute lyrics got stuck in my head.

Something about when you smile, the world smiles with you and when you cry, you cry alone. I can’t remember the song any more. It was old when I heard it, although it seems to have left its mark on me.

In searching for it, I found an even older poem:


Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

First published in 1883, Solitude was inspired by Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s fateful meeting with a grieving widow. The young poet was travelling to Madison, Wisconsin for the Governor’s Inaugural Ball when she saw a young woman dressed in black, crying. Being a kind soul Miss Wheeler sat next to the distraught woman and tried to comfort her for the rest of the journey. Instead of Ella lifting the sad woman’s spirits though, the  meeting had the opposite effect. By the end of the journey, Ella was so miserable she nearly didn’t attend the celebrations.

Most of us have experienced the heavy drain of spending time with someone suffering from grief or depression. We give as an act of love but the effort can leave us depleted. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of walking into a room where people are arguing. You can feel the tension like a taut wire overhead. Stay in their company long enough, and you might begin to feel the saw toothed edge of irritation in your own jaw.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that other people have power over us.

And when we watch the news, or browse through our social media feeds, it can get even more worrying.  Total strangers can make us furious, or scared. Read some of the comments. The hate, the terror, the outrage. All invoked by a stranger’s post or a fake news story.

But is the energy really outside us, trying to get in? How much do we need to protect ourselves from what is out there? Isn’t the poem implying that we effect our world as much as it does us?

Is it possible that we are the ones having a profound effect on the people around us? Our heart rhythms beating out a script that others are obliged to follow. What if every part of our mind, including the terrified part and the atomic rage part, was creating an image and projecting it onto a vast world-sized screen. What if  everyone we met was a part of our own being? And the entire world a reflection.

What if you are every player in your favourite sports team? What if you are the lights on a runway? The flies hovering over a barbecue grill? The guy driving behind you, leaning on his horn? Your neighbour’s Golden Retriever? The coworker you want to strangle? The immigrants who frighten you? The kids up the road? Your own kids? The gravel driveway? Prison inmates? Outer space? The music on your iPhone? The air you breathe? The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen? The crow watching?

What if you are not a tiny, helpless body, but a vast ocean of energy? All parts of you connected in a beautiful tapestry you don’t understand.

And every act of kindness or cruelty you offered was bestowed on your own being.

“You’re water. We’re the millstone.
You’re wind. We’re dust blown up into shapes.
You’re spirit. We’re the opening and closing 
of our hands. You’re the clarity.
We’re the language that tries to say it.
You’re joy. We’re all the different kinds of laughing.” 

 – Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi – مولوی