When I was writing Mating in Captivity and was interested in making a distinction between eroticism and sexuality, I made a connection that I had never made before. That helped me understand why I was so interested in writing about the erotic – not in the narrow sense that modern society has defined it, but rather that quality of aliveness, vitality, and vibrancy that animates us.
I was listening to a podcast interview with Esther Perel recently where she talks as she often does about the study of aliveness and the erotic as related to the family and community of Holocaust survivors from which she hails. She often says that in the camps after the Holocaust there remained two different types of survivors: those that did not die and those who came back to life. One might wonder as I did when I first started studying Perel’s work, what the erotic has to do with Holocaust survivors.
As mentioned in the quote above, the term Erotic Intelligence coined by Perel, refers to a much broader definition of what it means to be alive than what most of us or used to. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Perel was very aware that her parents made the decision, to be not just survivors, but to make of their survival all that they could and to “come back to life” rather than to be alive and exist in a state of death. The energy that lay both in that choice and the work, the daily practice of joy and gratitude required, all contain the spark of the erotic and those things which universally signal aliveness for us all.
She talked in the interview about the role laughter played for survivors of the Holocaust, laughter in the darkest, the most terror filled times, “Laughter in hell.” This notion grabbed me and I took note of the times when laughter in my life during rough times (many of which I still wading through) have brought me and people around me to laugh totally at random. Marginalized oppressed people all over the world relate to this kind of laughter, the kind that pushes up defiantly through the ugliness and pain of human injustice and disparity and explodes into spaces blanketed with fear, sadness, hopelessness and depression like light breaking. Perel talks about laughter as autonomy in dark times when one feels that the sense of control over everything else has been lost.
The affirmation of this through Perel’s study touched me deeply. It confirmed something I had always suspected about why laughter is so important to me. There is a sense of unabashed freedom and bonding, a collective agreement, a belonging when we laugh together and even alone. There are times, in my therapist’s office when we will both share bursts of unexpected of laughter, sometimes moments after I have been crying. And that laughter…man, it makes me feel like no matter what, I still have the energy of life in me, that I have not shut down completely, that light can still enter and will again and again if I hold space for it. And I hold space for laughter in my life actively. I hold space for laughter and to make people laugh and to laugh at myself most of all.