Inspirational speaker Sue Z. Hart spends every day doing something she loves: bringing laughter into the lives of those who could use it most. She recently spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper about the healing powers of humor therapy.
Chet Cooper: How did you get on this path?
Sue Z. Hart: I was rear-ended in a car accident. It was just a fender-bender, but because I didn’t spend the night in the hospital, I couldn’t get disability insurance to cover my bills when I later started experiencing problems. The accident injured the C7-T1 cervical disk at the base of my neck, and the symptoms were very similar to multiple sclerosis (MS).
Though I was never diagnosed with MS, for a while I couldn’t walk or talk very well. I spent tens of thousands of dollars to find out what was wrong, and I was on heavy medication. The doctors said I was deteriorating quickly and advised me to get my final papers in order. People pulled away from me because they were uncomfortable. That’s when I started taking personal responsibility for my situation. I knew if I shared my story I could bring people together and build communities.
Cooper: That’s a healthy perspective.
Hart: I realized I have to have a positive outlook, no matter how much time I have left, which changed everything. I ended up going to a natural therapist, and today you would never know I have any kind of disability at all.
Cooper: And your career in humor therapy all started with you telling stories?
Hart: Yes. I found funny stories to tell. I read funny stories to people, and that seemed to make them feel more comfortable with me. I could laugh and they could laugh with me. That experience helped break down walls.
Eventually I thought this would be a great program to develop. I did some research and met with a Seafair Clown. We talked about creating a World Laughter Tour. But I was still in a lot of physical pain. The initial accident caused so much financial pressure on me that I ended up selling my home.
For a while, I felt really sorry for myself. But I remembered a poem that says, “I felt bad that I had no shoes, until I met the man with no feet.” That’s when I knew I had to stop worrying so much about myself and start giving to others. I’ve been a volunteer and advocate for Habitat for Humanity ever since.
As I got better, I made a promise to myself that I would never forget what it felt like to deal with a disability. Today, helping people and empowering them still drives me. I ended up bringing the World Laughter Tour to Seattle and training 23 laughter therapists in the area. Laughter helps people heal on so many levels.
Cooper: One of the programs you work with is at an assisted living facility, is that right?
Hart: I do laughter therapy with them once a month.
Cooper: How does laughter therapy work?
Hart: I warm up with laughter exercises. Then we put on some laughter cream, and rub it all over, ’til we get really silly.
Cooper: Laughter cream?
Hart: Yeah. You just pretend that that you’re putting on cream, and you giggle and work your way into complete silliness.
Cooper: That doesn’t stain your clothing?
Hart: [laughs] With an assisted-living audience, I perform more of an act, so to speak, because the people there can’t be very responsive, and yet they seem noticeably better afterwards. Sometimes the director of the facility will come up to me and say, “You know, Sue, this guy wasn’t even able to put his arms up, and now he’s clapping.” That’s the most exciting thing. Having that kind of energy in the room increases heart rates, awareness and attentiveness.
Cooper: Do you do breathing exercises?
Hart: That’s part of it, yes. That’s what laughter is, basically. It’s the “Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!” It’s similar to a yoga exercise in which you bring the oxygen in and then let it out through the “Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!”
Cooper: Beyond the work you do at assisted-living centers, what other programs do you lead?
Hart: I work with businesses when I have the opportunity. I’ve developed a mentoring program for master builders and a card game for high schoolers. I’m a Jill of all trades.
Cooper: Your program is called Little Red Wagon University. How would you describe what you do there?
Hart: I do a lot of things under that name, including inspirational speaking engagements. I have a great presentation called “Obstacle Illusions,” which points out how many of our obstacles are really illusions that we create for ourselves. That lesson comes directly out of the experience of my accident, and the understanding that we each have the power to change our lives from within.
I had a great background in sales, which I cultivated for more than 20 years before my accident.
Cooper: Do you recognize a connection between volunteerism and humor therapy?
Hart: Oh, absolutely. Some of the research I’ve done shows that a person has a much higher success rate of coming off an addiction if he volunteers within his treatment program. Not until you become part of something bigger than yourself do you really find yourself. There are so many amazing things that will come out of us, if we open our hearts.
Cooper: What’s your favorite thing about the work you do?
Hart: The fact that lightheartedness can carry us through our darkest times. People with disabilities need that kind of support. Humor is personal. I can joke about things that have caused me pain and that eases my pain. Or if somebody who knows me well jokes with me—and we have that kind of relationship—that person is actually sharing my pain.
On the other hand, if somebody pokes fun at my pain, then that can cause me to hurt even more. Court jesters had to be very careful how they said things to the king. They were usually the only ones who could call him out, but they had to be careful in the way they did it. It’s a delicate balance.