Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
I was so glad not to have died that day that I made it my new birthday.
A few hours earlier, I was on top of a mountain outside a small town in Chile when I doubled up in pain from an intestinal obstruction. This is a pain more intense than childbirth, as I was told later by a woman who had enjoyed both. While they carted me down the mountain, the pain was impressive enough to make me feel perfectly okay with dying. I would have been happy to die; but as it turned out, this wouldn’t be necessary. In a cramped, dingy emergency room, I was examined by a doctor who, by chance, was an expert in exactly my problem. I was lucky, because about a yard of my intestine was dead, and within a couple of hours I would be, too. He opened me up in an emergency surgery that saved my life. I woke up from the operation euphoric. I hugged the doctor and embraced his wife and children, grateful to his whole family for the extra chance at life he had given me. I told everyone that Chile was my new homeland, and I celebrated my new life every chance I got.
But as time passed, a persistent thought kept piercing my euphoria: What should this new life be like? This was time I was getting for free, and it seemed to call for freshness.
Not that I was unhappy. During the year I turned sixty-nine, there could hardly have been more good news coming my way. In January, I was nominated for an Oscar; in April, for a Tony; in September, for an Emmy; and in October, the first book I’d written made the bestseller lists. All this in one year. Even my seventieth birthday came and went without a feeling of dread. I was still a kid. I still enjoyed working hard, and my appetites still called to me with the urgency of a kid’s. We must have that dish of pasta, the food appetite would say. But this is the third dish of pasta in the same meal, I’d tell it, secretly delighted by its roguish concupiscence. Yes, a third dish, the appetite would say, and we must have it. Now. Contented as I was, I still wanted to squeeze more juice out of my new life. This was the playful search of
a happy appetite, and I realized how lucky I was to be craving more.
I’ve known people who didn’t even know they wanted more, because they felt they simply had nothing. Every once in a while, I think of a moment long ago in a coffee shop in Times Square when the person sitting across from me mentioned he was thinking of killing himself.
He said it casually as he put down his coffee cup. He was a young black man, only recently out of college. I was twenty-five, and he was about twenty-two. We had met a few days earlier at a gathering of idealistic young people hoping to end nuclear testing. We had been talking about how completely dim the prospects were of our group having any success in slowing the arms race. Then our conversation turned somehow from the destruction of cities in a nuclear firestorm to the subject of his own life. That’s when he put down his cup and said, with the air of someone announcing he was considering going off cream for skim milk, “I’ve been thinking that I might kill myself.”
I was stunned. “You can’t do that.”
He looked surprised. “Why not?”
“You don’t have the right to kill yourself.”
“Of course I do. It’s my life. I can do what I want with it.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t do that to the people around you. You can’t leave them with grief and a dead body. You don’t have the right to do that to anyone.”
He thought about that for a moment. “Yes, I do. It’s my body.”
“Look. You’re smart, you’re educated. You have a life ahead of you. A career.” I didn’t even know what he did for a living, but he was smart. He’d be able to get along in anything he chose to do.
“Well, I might go for that,” he said, “but I might kill myself. I haven’t decided. It’s just an option.”
When someone’s heading down that dark tunnel, how do you call him back? Certainly my indignation wasn’t having any effect. I lost track of him not long after that and didn’t find out if he ever acted on his thoughts, but I always wished I could have said something to turn him away from that darkness.
A decade later, I was surprised to be facing that same frustration. I was acting on television in M*A*S*H, and after a shaky start, the show was an enormous hit. Mail started coming in by the bagful. One afternoon, I sat in a canvas chair on the set between shots and sorted through a handful of letters. There was a note in a pink envelope, addressed to me in tiny, cramped handwriting. I opened it and started reading:
Please help me. I don’t know what to do. I feel like killing myself.
The writer was a girl, probably a teenager. Her handwriting was neat and controlled, but her thoughts were all over the place. I was the one person, she said, who could help. Would I please write back as soon as possible with some words that would keep her from ending her life?
A few weeks later, a letter came in from a young man thinking of suicide. Then another, from someone else. There were about a dozen during the run of the show, and I answered them as well as I could. One man wrote back, saying my letter had helped him to reconsider and now he was glad to be alive—but I wondered about the ones I didn’t hear from. They had seemed to be looking for some kind of meaning in their lives. Had they found it?
Once the show became successful, invitations started coming in asking me to pronounce a few words to live by at college commencements and even offering honorary degrees. I instinctively recoiled. It was flattering, but flattery is the doorway to embarrassment. What did I have to say to people that was worth the time it took to listen to it? The more successful our show got, the more they asked me to come and talk. It was all out of proportion. So I went and talked. I couldn’t resist the flattery. But I worked on those speeches with more diligence than I’d ever used on anything before.
As my children were growing up, and later with my grandchildren, I would look for those pleasurable moments when I could call up something that would feel like passing on a little wisdom. In all of these talks, public and private, of course, I probably hadn’t really been talking to other people. I’m sure I was really talking to myself.
Couched in jokes and colloquial banter, my advice was always there: the pill in the pudding. But it wasn’t such a bad pill. I was often trying to see how young people could guard themselves from a feeling later on that their lives had been a pointless passing of time. The same thing, in a way, that I was now trying to guard against myself.
I started rummaging in the back of my mind and in the bottoms of drawers for old speeches and other things I’d said that meant something to me. And I wanted to figure out the context. What was going on in our lives then that led me to say what I said? I felt a little tingle of excitement in my belly. This would be fun.
For some reason, just before I take a look inside myself I
always think it’s going to be fun. This is a particular form of
narcissistic madness, actors’ division. Before I knew it, I was tangled up in an unexpected and thorny question. It came at me in plain words one night, in that sullen calm before sleep. This is the calm that has two doors: One leads to dreams and the other to thoughts, and the door to thoughts is the one that goes nowhere.
With teeth scrubbed, the bathroom light switched off, and just before the light in your brain flickers out, there is a special depth to the dark. It was in that thick quiet that I heard a question move forward from the back of my head.
So tell me, the voice asked, are you living a life of meaning?
Oh, please, I thought.
No, really, said the voice. If it should happen that you don’t wake up tomorrow, will this have been a life that meant something?
I really hadn’t expected this. I was just looking for a little more juice. Meaning? Was this voice kidding me? Hadn’t this year been the essence of a meaningful life? I was successful in my work. My children and grandchildren were thriving, and my wife and I had never been happier. Arlene and I were taking time to do idle, playful things on the spur of the moment. We took an afternoon off to go look at Grand Central Station, just because we hadn’t seen it in thirty years. And then we spent an hour in the Museum of Modern Art, which we hadn’t seen since they fixed it up. Then we walked for blocks, looking for a taxi, and when we got to Central Park and still couldn’t get a cab, we smelled horses behind us. We turned and saw the hansom cabs lined up on Fifty-ninth Street and decided to go home by horse and carriage. We grinned for the whole trip.
It was a perfect life. So why would I wonder what the meaning of it was? But the damn question wouldn’t go away. Once it got hold of me, it didn’t just linger—it pulled at my lapels, jabbed its finger in my chest. Demanded an answer.
But meaning is a tricky thing. I sat next to a young woman on a plane once who bombarded me for five hours with how she had decided to be born again and so should I. I told her I was glad for her, but I hadn’t used up being born the first time. Nothing stopped her. She was married to an acquaintance of mine, and I couldn’t turn her off. I left the plane with an ache in my head the size of a grapefruit. I’m certain she led a life that was meaningful to her and had just had five meaningful hours of it. But that didn’t mean she was living the good life. And for five hours neither was I. Fight for what you believe in, they say. Serve a higher purpose than yourself. This will give you fulfillment. It can also turn you into the lady on the plane. Or even a terrorist. Terrorists may feel more purpose in their lives than other people do, but that doesn’t mean terrorists are any better off; and neither are the rest of us.
If I was going looking for meaning, I didn’t want meaning that would betray other people, and I also didn’t want it to betray me. I wanted it to last. Billy Rose wrote a song a long time ago that asked:
Does the spearmint lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?
If you chew it in the morning, will it be too hard to bite?
That was me. I didn’t want to wake up someday and find that what had once given meaning to my life was as stale and tasteless as yesterday’s gob of gum.
For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. These were automatic expulsions of words, brief SOS messages from the base of my brain. They were similar to the short prayers that were admired by the church in my Catholic boyhood, which they called “ejaculations.” I always liked the idea that you could shorten your time in purgatory with each ejaculation; what boy wouldn’t find that a comforting idea? But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared. Whether I’d wake up in heaven someday or not, whatever meaning I found would have to occur first on this end of eternity.
When I was young, I noticed that the Greeks had asked what the “Good Life” was, and their question stuck in my mind. As I read more, I came across vastly different answers. There was Thomas Aquinas, who seemed to think a good life would be rewarded later; there was the ancient rabbi who said the reward of a good life is a good life; and there was Ernest Hemingway, who said if it feels good, it’s good. There was a cacophony of opinion about what the good life was and what it was good for. Still, the question remained: We live. We die. What’s in between? I had a feeling the answer would come to me if I listened in on the things I’d been telling myself. Not just in formal talks in front of crowds, but also in those chance moments on a walk, or driving in a car with a child, when the right words fell together and I said something I didn’t know I knew.
I picked up a pile of yellowed typewritten papers, moved over to an easy chair, and started reading.
And as I turned the pages, the gates opened and the memories flooded in.
Lingering at the Door
I fell deeply in love with her. When we brought her home from the hospital, I carried her up the narrow stairs to our second-floor apartment as Arlene walked ahead of me, climbing slowly against the pull of her stitches. We were in Ohio, where I was making sixty dollars a week at the Cleveland Playhouse. With local commercials, I could sometimes bring it up to eighty a week, and we had four sunny rooms and a couch we’d bought for five dollars at the Salvation Army that was comfortable, if lumpy, and equipped with a set of fleas.
Very soon, our freshly born girl looked us in the eye and smiled toothlessly. They said in those days that babies didn’t smile, that it was just gas. But we knew that in spite of science and all of nature, she was smiling at us. It wasn’t gas; it was love beyond the limits of anatomy.