Losing Your Way
A couple of weeks back, I talked about the increasingly popular notion in medicine that a purposeful life can seriously impact your health, in a good way. The piece was a little heavy on research and theory and a little light on personal experience. Why I care about this stuff grows out of what happened in my own life. Something I learned from Victor Frankl, the eminent Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and author of his famous 1946 book on this subject, “Man’s Search for Meaning”: surviving the death camps of the Holocaust was the key to both his thinking and his life.
I had never heard of this idea that a well-defined purpose could actually affect my state of health until a good fifteen years after becoming paralyzed. By that point I had survived all of the depression and despair that most people encounter on contracting a major disability. I’ve already described that in a memoir called “The Best Seat in the House.” But what I didn’t describe, as I look back, was my own big-picture outlook the day I became paralyzed. I always thought that how I reacted to this on a practical level was the whole story, or most of it. What I downplayed was, once recovered, why I was doing what I was doing as a career and in general, in leading my life. (I got this how/why stuff from Frankl, too.)
I didn’t have to deal with something as horrendous as the Holocaust, thank God, but at the time I was stricken with the MS-like disorder, transverse myelitis, I was in multiple kinds of trouble, and dragging my whole family down with me. I didn’t have enough money to pay our bills, a situation exacerbated by buying too big a house and burdened by way too big a mortgage. There were other problems, too, like finding my next paying job, but underneath them all, I’m now persuaded, was a deep void in my life. I was out of moves and didn’t know what to do.
My career in Hollywood as a writer/producer, at that point, had flat-lined. And to make a long story short, it had flat-lined because, after a long stay, I had never found a comfortable niche there. I didn’t fit in and sometimes think I probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I did good work and won awards, but whatever I had done had run its course. For one thing, the men and women with whom I had done my best work had moved on to broader careers, like acting in primetime series or movies or becoming the voice of a half-dozen of the characters on “The Simpsons.” I really hadn’t.
I was stuck between a past I couldn’t recreate and an unknown future. I settled on --- meaning, I was employable -- writing TV specials, award shows, tributes, and other kinds of forgettable fodder. Half of America doesn’t even know those kind of shows are “written” and the other half think that all of the “patter” is trite and self-serving to the stars reading the words off of a teleprompter.
I hated this work. With rare exception, it had no meaning, depth, impact, or endurance. I was working for the money, good for keeping the family afloat, but little else. A few comedy bits were funny but all the viewer took away, in most cases, was the short-term memory of a teary celebrity getting a trophy. After I became paralyzed, I did have the privilege of co-writing the Christopher Reeve “Celebration of Hope” special on ABC in 1998. That had meaning. That had impact.
I can’t describe how awful it felt to suddenly be paralyzed, but something clearly changed. I clearly had a purpose now: get healthy and learn how to be a functioning paralytic. This became the entire focus for the next two years of my life, but as my physical health improved, my emotional health stayed in the critical zone. I still had nowhere to go. Once a potential big hitter is show biz, I was now batting .053.
I had it all wrong. To paraphrase Dr. Frankl, you don’t pursue success, you ensue it. First you do something you love and do it well and let the consequences follow.
Because of my paralysis, even the monkey work in TV dried up. The fact that I was getting older in a youth-crazy business didn’t help. I was thrown a lifeline when old college friend David Chase asked me to write a tongue-in-cheek companion book to “The Sopranos.” That gave me a boost of confidence and headed me in a different direction, one that eventually became my new purpose: writing about disability.
It made perfect sense in retrospect. Ex-alcoholics often end up doing alcohol counseling. Ex-gangsters devote them to keeping young kids out of gang life. Old ex-vets help new ex-vets. I got worried that I might get stuck in this one limited sphere, but that quickly dissipated when I realized I really liked writing about the world of disability and felt useful and accomplished in doing so.
Am I getting rich and famous? Hardly. But whatever success I have had in the dis biz ensued from my natural inclination to enter it on the first place. Maybe this will run its course. Then I’ll find myself lost and forlorn again, then discover a new passion crafting humorous skits down at the Last Stop Nursing Home. Was becoming paralyzed my ticket out of spending the rest of my life writing Brady Bunch tributes? I guess it was. Not that I recommend it as a life-style, but sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. And it begins with finding a real purpose in your life.
End of sharing. Play on!
© 2014 Allen Rucker |
Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life