Laughter is Restorative: Sister Helen's Visit to Oregon

We had the honor and privilege of hosting Sister Helen Prejean, a leading anti-death penalty activist, speaker, Catholic nun, and author of the books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents in Oregon during the past week. She came here through the combined efforts of a number of organizations and departments, and she spent portions of her visit in Portland, Salem and Eugene. On Tuesday, she visited Oregon State Penitentiary and facilitated a writing workshop with Inside-Out alumni (both inside and out), and a few community members. The theme of the day was restorative justice. I hope to publish, over the course of this week, a number of posts from “outside” alums reflecting on the workshop, or on their experiences with Sister Helen over the time she was here.

In the meantime, I want to kick it off by reflecting briefly on a moment at the beginning of the workshop that I think speaks to Sister Helen’s thorough understanding of people, and the depth of her experience in social justice work.

She began, speaking boisterously in her Louisiana accent, with some jokes. Sometimes irreverent, sometimes silly, she made verbal note of her intent to start us off lightly. She spoke of “neoteny” or the retention of youthful traits in adults, as an explanation for the adult human’s ability to retain a sense of playfulness. And she told not one joke, but at least three.

To be honest, even though I had heard Sister Helen speak before and knew that she was funny, I didn’t expect her to start off a talk about restorative justice in that way. It’s a serious topic and sitting inside a prison makes it all the more serious. And yet, she has an important point. We need a sense of playfulness and lightness in order to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of sadness and trauma in our criminal justice system and in so many facets of our communities. We need to be able to see humor, light, and joy in addition to sadness, loss, and anger in ourselves and in the people around us.

As the workshop progressed, we went on to write about and share some truly heavy experiences. The tone of the group shifted to match the weight of the experiences participants were sharing, but in the moments between sharing, the playfulness remained. Participants chatted, joked, and laughed. For me, it made the experience that much more human. We all acknowledged trauma and harm, but we also saw the capacity for joy within each other.

As she so simply put it, “laughter is restorative”.

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