TIME remembrance

Advice From Maya Angelou: “Don’t Trust People Who Don’t Laugh”

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou attends the Norman Mailer Center's fifth annual benefit gala at the New York Public Library on Oct. 17, 2013, in New York City. Michael Loccisano—Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

The influential writer has died at age 86

Not every moment in the life of Maya Angelou, the prolific writer who died today at 86, was something to laugh at: as TIME’s Lev Grossman recounts in his remembrance, her youth was a period marred by abuse and suffering. Still, Angelou repeatedly took the chance to remind others about the importance of laughter.

It was a piece of advice she dispensed frequently often over the years, particularly when speaking to young people. A 1998 report of her visit to the University of Buffalo included that idea: “Don’t trust people who don’t laugh,” she told the audience, after speaking about a painful time in her own life. “I don’t.”

As recently as last year, she expanded on that wisdom again, when speaking to Anderson Cooper on CNN:

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were brothers. They had incredible senses of humor. They could make you laugh in the worst of times, and they did so. And you know, I never trust people who don’t laugh, who said, “I am serious” and act as if they put airplane glue on the back of their hands and stuck the glue to their foreheads. I think, “You’re not serious; you’re boring as hell.”

If you’re serious, you really understand that it’s important that you laugh as much as possible and admit that you’re the funniest person you ever met. You have to laugh. Admit that you’re funny. Otherwise, you die in solemnity.

In the poem “Old Folks Laugh,” included in her 1997 collection of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved, she made clear that her advice about laughter wasn’t just about not taking yourself too seriously. The poem’s conclusion states that laughter is still the best medicine: “When old folks laugh, they consider the promise / of dear painless death, and generously / forgive life for happening / to them.”

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