After a near-death experience, Alan Alda decided to
search for the meaning of life.
Not that he had been a slouch about introspection before. Nor was he an
unhappy guy. But, as he writes in his new book of the intestinal blockage that
nearly took his life four
years ago, "I was so glad not to have died that day that I made it my new
Not long after, the 71-year-old actor, director and author writes, a voice
in his head asked him, "So tell me ... are you living a life of meaning?" His
initial response: "Oh please ... Was this voice kidding me?"
Alda's quest, launched well into the later decades of his life and detailed
in "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself," his new best-selling book, is
hardly unusual. That became clear in the responses from attendees at his
appearance last month at Huntington's Book Revue, where many said they really
connected, and in interviews with experts. In fact, the experts say, it doesn't
take a medical emergency to make older people start to ask metaphysical
questions often more associated with teen angst.
Aging means facing death
"In some ways, the mature years are a near-death experience," said
psychologist Joseph Scardapane, executive director of the Salzman Community
Services Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "We realize, sometimes for
the first time, that our lives won't go on forever. So there can be a more
intense search for meaning, because you've lived your life so busily as a
student, worker and parent without thinking, 'What does my life mean?'" Baby
boomers in particular, he said, pursued the idea of "finding yourself" but had
to put the quest on hold when "life came along." At older ages, he said, people
tend to have more time - and more concern about what their legacy will be.
Alda, in an interview a few days after his Book Revue appearance, said he
recalled several conversations at the bookstore with people who, like him, are
searching for the best way to lead their lives. One woman, he said, spoke of
trying to find a balance between the many do-good volunteer positions she had
taken after a serious health scare and spending time with her family.
His own conclusion, he said, may seem surprising for someone who has been
outspoken about social and political issues for most of his life. In the book,
he reviews speeches that he's given over the years at graduation ceremonies and
other events. "In the beginning, I was encouraging young people more to find
something to do to change the world," he said. "Later, I tell them to be more
aware of who they are and where they are."
In his book, he concludes that the important thing is "just noticing life"
- being aware in the few seconds during which "now" exists in our brains.
"Everything else is memory or living in the future," he writes.
Of course, he said in the interview, being involved with "children,
grandchildren, art and love are things we know give a sense of meaning and
purpose. For me, doing any of them isn't quite enough if I'm not there while
I'm doing it, if I'm not alert while I'm doing it." It's ironic, he said, that
his solution - alertness, living in the "now" - "puts aside the question of
meaning. It doesn't bother me that there is no meaning."
Stella Nadel, who has lived in Syosset for 53 years, said that while Alda
was signing her copy of his book, she pointed out a two-sided pendant she often
wears around her neck. It's inscribed with a quote from an 1811 prayer by Jane
Austen: "Teach us ... that we may feel the importance of every day of every
hour as it passes."
"He took my hand," said Nadel. "It meant something to him, too. It seems to
be the way he feels now." Nadel said she bought the quarter-size pendant in a
museum store several years ago. "I liked it so much."
In recent years, she has lost several relatives, including a younger
brother who died last year, and has developed serious health problems herself,
She didn't think much about "living every moment," she said, until the last
few years. Before that, she was too busy, she said, echoing Scardapane's
thoughts. Besides raising two children, she held jobs in many fields over the
years, including publishing, engineering and art museums. She worked in a
bookstore until she fell three or four years ago, she said.
Since then, she spends time looking in on her sister, who is in a nursing
home, spending as much time with her children and grandchild as she can,
reading, quilting, crafting and doing photography, all of which give her
pleasure. "I won't be going off to Africa to help children," she said. "It has
been on my mind to do some journaling."
Eileen Maloney of Kings Park, who is 71 like Alda, said she could relate to
the star of TV's "M*A*S*H" not only because she's a nurse and still works
part-time in the veterans' home in Stony Brook (tending to some vets from the
Korean War, the era of Alda's show), but also because she just recovered from a
mild heart attack. Like Alda during his moment of crisis, she said, "I
contemplated that fine line between mortality and immortality."
In the moment
"He's absolutely right about living in the moment.... It's such a precious
gift, your life," she said. "I don't get upset at things as much as I used to.
I don't know if it comes with age or wisdom." That doesn't mean, of course,
that she won't occasionally "fall back into the same old complaints about
things, too," she said. But she takes care to listen to the veterans who want
to talk, she said, and about twice a week drives to Sunken Meadow Park to walk
on the boardwalk, where she often runs into "cronies, and we go for coffee."
She'll also sit outside near her home when the weather is good.
"I contemplate what's going on in my life, where am I going to go from
here, is this what it is, is this where I'm going to be for the rest of my
life," she said. "Then I pick myself up and go to visit my grandchildren."
Living in the moment isn't easy to do, as Maloney has discovered. In fact,
universities and clinics, such as Scardapane's, teach courses on it.
A term psychologists use is "mindfulness." At Hofstra, the technique of
"mindfulness meditation," which includes focusing on breathing and excluding
distractions, has been used to help people with disorders such as anxiety, pain
and anger, said Scardapane, but now the program is open to the general public,
Determining one's values - sometimes by imagining what you want on your
tombstone - is part of the process, he said. The therapy isn't about
relaxation, he said, "It's about staying in the moment. ... It's about living
in a committed way with those values." Psychology, in general, he adds, is
"moving away from the concept of feeling good to the idea of doing good.
Psychology has a greater focus now not on anxiety reduction but on learning to
live meaningfully with anxiety."
Jonathan Jackson, the director of psychological services at the Gordon F.
Derner Institute, Adelphi University's psychology program in Garden City, is
another proponent of mindfulness. "The present moment is really all we have,
the sense of being alive," he said.
Meditation, yoga and contemplative or meditative disciplines in various
religions always have provided paths to "train the mind," Jackson said. "Before
you can change the way you think, you need to be able to observe your mind, to
learn how it works and see if you can find another way.
"Everyone pursues happiness," Jackson said. "One way is to be free of fear,
and one thing we all fear is death. Having confronted death, we can come back
feeling less fearful. It's not always as dramatic as with Alan Alda, but we're
all here as long as we are."
Now that people are living longer, they have more time and resources to
seek happiness, he said. "The longer you live, the greater opportunity you have
to find wisdom." Another demographic factor, he added, is the current age of
baby boomers like himself (he's 56). "Living in the present really appeals to
people at this time in their lives, and there's a lot of us. We're the
trendsetters." (Scardapane, 50, is a boomer, too. Both psychologists said
they've recently taken up meditation, in groups and by themselves.)
Adelphi has used mindfulness groups for anger management and for stress
reduction, available to students and the public. Though the desire to be happy
has always been with us, said Jackson, the mindfulness approach is a relatively
new way, spurred in part by research by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at
the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
That work, Jackson said, is a basis for Alda's reference in his book to the
5 to 7 seconds when "now" exists in the mind. "By habit, we have very active
minds. If you close your eyes for five minutes, you don't sit still in the
present. You go off thinking about an appointment you have or somebody you have
to call or forgot to call. It's hard to stay in the present. But if you turn
to mindfulness, it expands your awareness of the present moment, so you can
live in it more fully. That's a pathway to happiness."
Another Alda fan - he and his wife bought three copies of the book at Book
Revue - has been exploring various meditation-like pathways to happiness in
recent years. Bob Dembin, 64, of North Bellmore, does yoga and tai chi and
takes long nature walks several times a week.
He started about six years ago, when he learned he had prostate cancer.
He's cured now, he said, but more recently got a diagnosis of mild Parkinson's,
which made him increase his search for fulfillment and good health.
"I enjoy my life more now. I enjoy nature, yoga and tai chi more than ever.
It really opened up some new doors." He joined an Adirondack mountain club and
a weekend hiking program at Caumsett State Historic Park in Lloyd Harbor.
He also walks in Sands Point Preserve by himself. "It's very nurturing and
positive," he said, adding that he usually goes twice a week. He has joined a
birding group run out of his local adult education center. He loves Bayard
Cutting Arboretum in Great River. "They have a park dedicated to tranquillity,
peace, stillness and enjoying life." It also has a yoga studio.
"Once I found out how beautiful it is, I decided to take yoga there," he
said, even though it's a long drive from home. Afterward, he walks in the park
by the Connetquot River. "You hear the ducks quacking, the geese are honking,
the crows are crowing, and you can hear the poetry of the Connetquot River. It
A retired elementary school principal (in Massapequa), Dembin said he's
always been "a very positive person. They called me smiling Bob. My glass was
always half full." But after his facing-death experience - like Alda, with whom
Dembin said he feels great "spiritual" kinship - he became even more motivated
to embrace life. He asked Alda to inscribe his book "Live for now" before
"It all evolved after the crisis, when I made a commitment to make my life
better, to make my wife's life better and to support my son, to spend more time
with him," he said. His son, 21, is a college student, and Dembin treasures
the times he visits him or shares vacation time with him, he said. He's also
making "a tremendous effort to do interesting things with my wife," Nina. (She
still works, he said, which is why he does many of his nature activities by
On their 25th wedding anniversary on July 25, Dembin said, he arranged for
a gondola ride in Central Park, something he'd read about in a book. They ate
at Tavern on the Green first and had an Italian gondolier who told them Central
Park lore and sang love songs to them. "It was almost an out-of-body
experience," he said.
No doubt, Alan Alda would have approved.