Tuesday, January 10, 2012

M*A*S*H and Humanism

I love M*A*S*H reruns. 

Chris gave me the entire series on DVD for Christmas one year and then had to put it up with me wanting to watch it every night for months. I love the jokes, the cynicism, the conflicts. I like Hawkeye’s pranks, Father Mulcahy’s prayers, and Klinger’s costumes. I like that the photo sitting on Colonel Potter’s desk is of Harry Morgan’s real-life wife. I like that Gary Burghoff (“Radar”) is now a wildlife artist and that Mike Farrell cares about cult awareness and that “Major Winchester” conducts symphony orchestras. Most of all, I like Alan Alda’s laugh.

Last semester, I listened to an audiobook by Alan Alda on my commute to college. The book was part memoir, part philosophy. Alda’s Bronx accent calmed me while his humor made me laugh out loud, his stories made me tear up, and his observations about life filled me with hope. I enjoy M*A*S*H more than ever now, knowing what the Hawkeye Pierce character meant to him.

Life in the 4077 reminds me of difficult environments in my past. Places I didn’t want to be, responsibilities I didn’t ask for, authoritative “leadership” who didn’t understand, random visits from VIPs living in their own fantasy world, the camaraderie and sheer delight of shared misery and common purpose in close quarters, the painful partings—especially when there weren’t goodbyes. The M*A*S*H writers capture something I envy, though. Their characters embrace humanity, in all its neediness and beauty. They depict the suffering of separation, of monotony, of fear. They cope with loneliness, sleep deprivation, anxiety, sickness, sexual desire, and lack of privacy. They challenge inequality and prejudice, mock arrogance, abhor violence, celebrate individuality, and defy regulations to help real persons.

I have not always been encouraged to value humanness. Humanism was warned against as the enemy of both our souls and our society. Mankind’s primary value was presumed to be in his proximity to divinity. An individual’s moral influence, for good or evil, was viewed as his most important attribute. Needs for rest and exercise, proper nourishment, medical care, human touch and friendship, education, self-expression, self-determination—those were secondary, a lower tier of existence. We grew to deem those things weaknesses in ourselves, obstacles to our desire to be our “best”.

M*A*S*H reminds me that humanity is something to cultivate and affirm. My own and everyone else’s. It encourages me to be patient with myself and with my family, to value people over ideology, to not take myself too seriously, to work toward the ideal without expecting it.
And best of all, Alan Alda makes me laugh.

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