What is the meaning of life? What is the good life? Does your life have meaning? Countless people have posed this question and tried to answer it, and Alan Alda takes a crack at it in his latest book of essays, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.
Armed with commencement speeches, eulogies, and decades of memories, Alda leads us on a tour of his own lifeís lessons. Itís similar to sitting on the living room floor in front of the fireplace while Grandpa delivers cautionary tales. That is, if Grandpa were a famous actor. With Hollywood and Broadway as a backdrop, Grandpaís stories about his life add another dimension of celebrity to those tales.
Virtually every chapter is crafted to begin and end with a specific theme, accompanied by a speech or two that demonstrates that theme. One thought-provoking point includes the hypocrisy of ranking of our values while spending an inversely proportionate amount of time on things that do not support those values. Alda clearly ranks family, love, environmental responsibility, ethics, equal rights, and self-determination high on his list of values. Like many parents, his first conclusion to the meaning of life was the birth of his first child. Many years later, he delivers a speech to a graduating class whose audience includes her. He advises us to not force our children into some mold but to simply love them.
Alda conveys the insightful lesson that while you canít save the world, you can make a difference in another personís life. Or ten people. Or more. Stop complaining and start doing. You and the people you help are better off each time you do. Like interest over time, it all adds up to something significant and measurable. Be patient, Alda says.
Much of Aldaís wisdom is accompanied by humility, a key factor in making his claims of such wisdom credible. Some writers spew forth their knowledge as if they were born with it, and it is therefore not to be questioned. Aldaís stories are honest demonstrations of fallibility and full of passion. While the speeches themselves are at times platitudinous, thatís what speeches are, and in this book they are framed as such. Still, it does take a little away from the enjoyment of Aldaís storytelling and as a result is slightly less entertaining than his previous book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.
As each chapter comes full circle in theme, so too, does the book as a whole. His final chapter begins as a commencement speech to the reader but includes a poignant one he delivered at a college in 2003. It is in this same changing pattern that he tries to tell us what the meaning of life is. It comes across as: Life is this; well, actually maybe itís this; oh yeah, and this. He tries to boil it down to just a few words and ultimately one word. The reader may get the feeling that Alda still hasnít quite made up his mind and, given more time, he would resummarize it, and maybe thatís the point. But while he may have a different decision in his next book, the answer still wouldnít change for us: that we define our own meaning. It is not intended as a cop-out but just the simple truth.
Come next June, when youíre looking for a graduation gift, this book is packed with entertaining advice to send them out into the real world. Itís surprising that the marketing wizards behind this bookís publication didnít schedule its release with that in mind.