Stay Curious

with Alan Alda

We don’t usually have repeat guests on this podcast… except we’re making an exception for the wonderful and wise Alan Alda. Alan Alda, of course, is an award-winning actor, writer, director, and podcast host. You probably know and love him as Hawkeye on M*A*S*H or Senator Arnie Vinick on The West Wing. He is endlessly curious on just about every topic—which makes him the perfect person to talk to about empathy, learning across differences (and disagreement), and how we might age into new hobbies and careers.



Alan Alda

Alan Alda is a former actor from the hit TV show M*A*S*H, writer, and a director. He helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science which is mainly used to help scientists and doctors communicate more effectively with their patients. He has his own podcast called  Clear + Vivid with Alan Alda where he discusses with guests with powerful stories about communication. He hosted the award winning series Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for eleven years, interviewing leading scientists from around the world. He has received 6 EMMYs and has been nominated for an EMMY 34 times. In 1994 he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. His wife, Arlene, is the author of nineteen books, including her latest, Just Kids from the Bronx. They have three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Show Notes

Listen to Kate and Alan’s first conversation from season 1 of the Everything Happens Podcast, Can You Hear Me Now?

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is dedicated to communicating science effectively to share its wonder and impact.

Read Alan’s book If I Understood You Would I Have This Look on my Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

Learn more about Parkinson’s disease from the Mayo Clinic.

Alan talks about how exercise has helped him with his Parkinson’s disease. Here are some YouTube exercise videos specifically for those with Parkinson’s disease.



Discussion Questions

1. How curious are you? What are your tricks for being more curious—even (or maybe especially) to differing views?

2. Curiosity is the first step in learning and growing. When was the last time that you were curious about your faith and beliefs? How can asking questions help you grow in your faith?

3. Kate talks about “limited agency”—the possibility for change. How does imagining someone else’s agency offer you more compassion toward them? Toward yourself?


Kate Bowler: Well, this is a very special day. My name is Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. About six years ago, right at this time, I had just started this podcast, and I had not a single living clue what I was doing. If you go back, if you listen to some of those first few episodes, you can probably hear just my nerves exploding through your earphones. I really knew what I wanted. What I wanted was not to feel so lonely in my illness. I really wanted to feel like I could connect with people. I guess what I really was hoping for was community and better language for what happens when life comes undone. And frankly, I was tired of thinking about my own problems—I wanted to hear about someone else’s. I wanted to learn from someone else’s. And as it turns out, I didn’t want to stop learning. Since then, we’ve had over 160 episodes. How is that even possible? That’s 160 conversations with wise and funny and kind people who really, really get it. And I thought, just to celebrate this big, milestone sixth birthday of Everything Happens, I wanted to bring back one of my very first guests. And lucky for me, he is chock full of wisdom and wit, and there’s just so much to learn from this incredible person. But before we get to the conversation, which you will love, let me take a quick break to tell you about some of the sponsors of the show that will continue to make everything happen here at Everything Happens. We’ll be right back.

Kate: Alan Alda is an award-winning actor, writer, director, and podcast host. You probably know and love him as Hawkeye on M*A*S*H and Senator Arnie Vinick on The West Wing, or his incredible films like The Aviator or Crimes and Misdemeanors. He has been nominated for everything. Just everything. Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, People’s Choice awards. Just no big deal. He was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. And now he hosts his popular podcast, Clear and Vivid, where he continues to broaden the public’s understanding of science and empathy and really just being the most compassionate man in town. Alan, my lovely friend, I’m just over the moon to see your face.

Alan Alda: You praised me too much with the most compassionate man thing. I think, like most people who talk about something incessantly, it’s because they need more of it.

Kate: Well, you have been, you have been a source of endless empathy to me. So, Alan, I’ve never had a repeat guest before. But, but, but it’s you. And I just felt like. Well, first of all, I have so much more to learn from you, but second, I met you at the very beginning of both of our podcast journeys. We were we were baby podcasters.

Alan: And we had each other on to boost each other’s listenership.

Kate: Well now, let’s be clear about who was boosting who. When I started my podcast, it was still like family and friends who were hunkering to be on it. So you were my very, like when you said yes, I became a fancy lady.

Alan: Yeah, but you must have done better than me. You have a fancy neon sign behind you.

Kate: Well, I have a great insistence that everything be made into a sign. So I’ll get you one that says, “Most Compassionate Man in Town.”

Alan: Great.

Kate: Then it’ll be official. I wondered, since we both started a new…industry? New medium? New, like, starting a podcast is giving yourself a weird new job. And I wondered. Wait, how old, were you 82 when you started your podcast?

Alan: Let’s see. Maybe 83. I don’t, I can’t remember.

Kate: What motivated you to start a big, fat new project?

Alan: Oh, you know, I, I didn’t think of it until somebody said to me. Well, what if you want to raise money for the all the Center for Communicating Science? Why don’t you do a podcast? So we have sponsors and foundations that support the show, and all the money after expenses goes to support the Center for Communicating Science, which has trained over 20,000 scientists and medical professionals to communicate better. So when people listen to the show, even if they don’t like it, they’re doing good. So it’s a little like eating your broccoli if you don’t find it entertaining.

Kate: When you think about legacy, do you think about that Center? And I mean, it’s been an incredible force for good. Tell me a little bit about what you love most about what it’s done.

Alan: Well. I didn’t know how really useful it was going to be. I thought it would help scientists explain their work to the rest of us in the public. We haven’t spent our lives learning physics and medicine, biology the way they have. And they they’re silo-ized in addition to being scientists or doctors. They’re, they have such specific fields they study, that they sometimes can talk to one another any better than they can talk to us. And that was one of the first things I found out that it was good to be useful for, with scientists talking to one another or talking better, having better communication on a team.

Kate: Yes, that space between us and how we can bridge it, and how difficult it is to get there.

Alan: Yeah, exactly. There’s no communication. If you don’t acknowledge that this other person may be thinking and feeling things that are not so evident, you got to figure out what they are.

Kate: And the price of not figuring that out. I mean, for our culture, for our own lives is just, is too high.

Alan: Yeah, we just went through the pandemic, or which we’re still going through, and a lot of people don’t even realize it. That was a case of trying to figure out what tens of millions of people were thinking or feeling when you told them they had to lock themselves up. And some people threw out the baby with the bathwater said, this whole thing is, is phony. It’s, the vaccines are phony. You’ll get sick from the medicine. I think communication could have been a little better.

Kate: Yes. When we talk about communication, I mean, because one of my favorite things about you is summarized in your lovely book title, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? and which always makes me laugh because I think of the Alan Alda-ness of you as this very deliberate lovely way that you like to approach people. And I don’t want to embarrass you, except I will, because the other day I was talking to the wonderful Ann Patchett about how we get to know people, especially strangers, or especially interviewing, like being curious about someone we don’t already know and then kind of getting in the mix with them. And she said, you know, I have a person at mind who really, really changed my perspective. And I said, oh, I have a person in mind too. And then we both said, Alan Alda changed me.

Alan: That’s great. Great. That’s great of Ann to say that.

Kate: It’s true because you have a certain magic with connecting with others. And I wondered if I could just get very nosy about some of them, because you do it now every week on your podcast. And I always want to just ask you, like, for instance, curiosity. I think curiosity is core to who you are. What fuels your curiosity?

Alan: Boy, I wish I knew because every once in a while a teacher or somebody will say to me, my students aren’t curious. How do I get them to be curious? It’s hard for me to answer that because I’m, I think by nature I’m curious. I remember in my 20s, standing in elevators, going up to a high floor, and I’d be looking at the panel of buttons. And I’d think, I wonder how somebody put this in.  Somebody, somebody stood here with a screwdriver and connected all those wires to those buttons. I wonder how they did that. There was no purpose in wondering that. I just wonder about things like that. I went in when I was in my 20s, and I was still struggling to get work as an actor. I had a manager and I visited him in his office and I felt comfortable in his office. So when I, when I read someplace that your temperature changes by a couple of degrees, all during the day, goes up, it goes down, your body temperature. I thought it would be interesting to check that out and see if it changed and how much it did. So every hour I take a thermometer out of my pocket. And about the third time I did this in my manager’s office, he says, “How am I going to get your work if every time you go in to get a job, who’s going to give you a job with that thing in your mouth?”

Kate: One of the things that I believe in most is that virtues can’t always be instrumentalized. Like, they are good because they are good in and of itself. So I think that’s such a a wonderful foundation to think about curiosity. It is. It is good for its own sake.

Alan: I think you’re right. You’re right, you don’t have to monetize it.

Kate: Or, or be interested in anything except interest. Like the fact that your temperature was going to go up and down a few degrees.

Alan: Yeah, I wasn’t going to really get anything out of that.

Kate: I’m just thinking of times in which I’ve tried to improve my own curiosity, and I think…

Alan: What did you do?

Kate: I did it because I felt personally disconnected from somebody, and I didn’t know how to get that goodwill back. And so I thought, well, if I could just find something that they’re very interested in, which, I mean, it’s so, it’s always wonderful hearing somebody describe something that they’re…

Alan: It is, but you got to, you got to instantaneously, as you said, you have to instantaneously come up with real curiosity. And my problem is when I ask somebody about what they’re interested in or passionate about, my first reaction instantaneously is, really?

Kate: Is it really?

Alan: What, what is, what a strange thing to be interested in. And then I got to, like, force myself to say no, no, be curious.

Kate: I was stuck next to a potato manufacturer the other day on a flight, and that was honestly the best two hours I’ve spent in a really long time. What happens when they’re purple potatoes? Does it dial the instruments? You know, and it does. They’ve got to have a special dye remover just for all the purple potatoes.

Alan: They have a dye remover and we’re eating that?

Kate: Well, that’s actually not something I’ve followed up on. I got really confused about what happens to all the peels.

Alan: What do they do, do they feed them to the animals?

Kate: They give them to a group of, um, like a local religious group I knew a lot about. And then the conversation devolved into me being very interested in that religious group.

Alan: What does the religious group do with potato peels?

Kate: The Hutterites. Well, they take it to their farm and then they feed it to their animals, I believe. But the problem is they’re, this was being explained to me very carefully, and I was very interested is that they always do it in a giant, wooden flat bed that has a hole in it, and it leaves purple potato peels for miles to their farm. And it drives it drives the potato farmers crazy.

Alan: Well, they don’t mean to have the hole.

Kate: No, but it’s it’s easy to it’s easy to track them down if you want to find out.

Alan: This has led to a really strange place.

Kate: I’m sorry. This is what happens when you put two interested people together.

Alan: But it’s fascinating. Tell me mor

Kate: You have this lovely phrase, too, about ignorance as an ally. Like it’s okay if you don’t know what to say next, as long as it’s backed up by genuine interest.

Alan: Yeah, yeah. That’s true, it’s true. It’s it’s okay not only not to know what to say next, but I believe I found that it’s okay to be ignorant about something as long as you’re curious to know more.

Kate: How are you so good at making people feel like you’re interested? I mean, how how if someone felt like they weren’t very good at responsive listening, what suggestions do you have for how people could better express their curiosity?

Alan: You can practice. It really is relating to the other person. It’s letting them in. It’s not. It’s not being so concerned with what you have to tell them, as you are with what they have to tell you. And what about them? I really, before I talk to them on a podcast, I watch them on YouTube videos as much as that’s possible. Not where they’re giving a lecture or talk, but where they have to relate to somebody else. And the way, the way in which they relate best is something that I find I can make use of. I study them, and I only talk to people in the podcast who I think I’ll have a good conversation with. I don’t talk to people in order to catch them at something or disagree with them. Disagreeing is fine, but as long as I can learn from it, or one of us can learn from it, or one of us can come to a new mutual understanding. I mean, early on I talked to a philosopher who thought that empathy was overrated.

Kate: Oh, boy.

Alan: And. I really looked forward to talking with them, because the basis of pretty much everything I do lately has to do with empathy. So I said, let’s have a let’s have an experiment. Let’s see how much we can agree on on the whole issue. And it turned out we agreed a lot about almost everything.

Kate: What a wonderful way to start a conversation. I can just think of, you know, ten different political issues that if someone wanted to talk to someone else about, they could start with saying, let’s figure out how much we can agree on.

Alan: Yeah. You know, I, I’ve talked to a lot of people without talking politics. I’ve talked with a lot of people on the podcast about how they talk to people who don’t agree with them. And it seems that the most common, practical approach is to first establish what you agree on, truly agree on. Would you live your life that way? Not just a principle or an idea, but something that you, you give your heart to? We give our heart to our children. To the truth. To people who help other people. And we all have examples of that and we get together on that basis. There’s more trust, there’s more willing willingness to say, I don’t have to best this person. I don’t have to hate this person. And that goes for both sides. I mean, we’re in an unfortunate divide in the country now, but both sides are willing to hate the other side most of the time

Kate: It sounds like you almost need to start with the desired, the desire to want to see somebody’s goodness.

Alan: Yeah, I think that’s true. To believe you can. There, you know, there are people who, for the most part, you don’t want to be near because they’re dangerous. They’re, seriously, if I’m next to a serial killer, I don’t want to know how he feels. I want to know where the door is.

Kate: But then I’m pretty sure you’d be very interested in how he feels. You’d read it, and then you’d read a few books about it.

Alan: Yeah right, right. But it’s it’s confusing to be human because it’s not easy. It’s a mistake to think somebody is all good or all bad.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah.

Alan: I don’t know. Maybe not. You said. Yeah, twice. That sounds like maybe you think it’s true

Kate: No, I’m just, it’s kicking in to my thinking place where I’m trying to come up with examples. But I, um, I think that’s certainly one of the most, like, fruitful theological debates like we have in Christian circles is how do we accurately describe that mix of good and bad in a way that propels us toward greater love?

Alan: Hmm, that’s really interesting. So what’s the solution? How do you how do you bridge that?

Kate: I know, because there’s hundreds of different denominations that will parse that, they’ll sort of mete out the percentages, differently of how bad, how bad when? When, you know, when precisely is the fall? When is our fall? When is… But I think the, I think the place where I kind of drop the anchor theologically is in some mix, some mix of good and bad, which creates some mix of possibility for change. And that so much of just like, you know, prudential wisdom is in trying to figure out how much choice does any one person have in the situation they’re in, and then to meet them with a lot of grace for that, that particular context.

Alan: Choice about what?

Kate: Choice about how much they can change. You know, like whether. Like, for instance, if if I really, really, really disagree with somebody about almost everything and I’m trying to develop compassion for them, then I’m trying to understand like what? What part of their world can they not change? And then what small part of their world and thinking can they change? I guess that to me is like how I define grace is like seeing, seeing from their perspective how much they’re able to change or not.

Alan: So that’s interesting. That’s the how does that match up with what people say? Sometimes that sounds kind of believable to me that you can’t expect anybody to change. You can’t, you can’t actually, you can’t certainly can’t change them yourself. They have to change on their own.

Kate: You know, it’s one of the, I think one of the things we end up talking about a lot on the podcast, every time I hear a life story, is trying to figure out, like, the right way to describe what I think of as limited agency, like the not everything is possible and then not nothing is possible, but that small bit of traction that we all have in our life to get, you know, to make any kind of progress. And, and if I don’t understand that about somebody’s life, I find it very difficult to understand them. Because you do, you meet some incredibly lucky people who just had a thousand choices and, and endless possibility. And then you meet some people who had almost no choices, but did what they could with what they had. And I that’s always been kind of an intellectual topic that I’ve always, I could I could see that story played out a thousand times and I would never be bored.

Alan: I knew somebody once who seemed to have to be right all the time. And if you said something and that had happened on a Tuesday, he’d say, stop you and say Wednesday. Which was not an important part of the story.

Kate: I hate that.

Alan: And then, I kept watching him and listening to him. And I realized that that probably was never going to change. But there were things he did that were so generous and sweet. Then I just looked past what I found an annoying habit.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Everyone is such a grab bag in that, aren’t they? When I think about your work in, in responsive listening, in that kind of critical empathy that you have. How do you, how do you teach responsiveness to the person that’s in front of you, knowing that most of probably who they are won’t really change?

Alan: Yeah, I’m I’m happy to answer that. But before I do, I have to not, I have to deflect, parry your compliment about how empathetic I am because I struggle like everybody else. Well, not everybody struggles to be empathic, but I do. And I’ve always been capable of making a joke at someone’s expense that wasn’t warranted.

Kate: Me too.

Alan: So it’s not, not so easy to do. But one way to improve it is to practice. Especially while I was writing the book you mentioned. I would, almost all the time when I was out of my house and be in the street, I’d be looking at people and trying to figure out what they were going through. The cashier in a diner. The way, the way, she says have a good day. Is she connected to anything, is she having a divorce at home? What’s, what’s going on? And you don’t get the answers, but the effort to look into this other person, to hear the tone of voice, to hear the choice of words. I think, I think you can practice it. And before you speak you can think of this better thing to say than “But…”. Somebody says. “It’s a beautiful day today. I look forward to it.” “Yeah, but, you know, it’s supposed to rain in the afternoon.” It’s better to find something you can agree with and what they said. It doesn’t always happen easily, you know, because often our first inclination is to deflect the other person.

Kate: There’s a version of that, too, for people who are in pain. Where, I think it comes out of a desire to be understood. But it does always try to fit in the difficult or negative in order to just get back to, “Yes, but you don’t understand that my life is really hard right now.” And I have so much compassion for that. But it is very difficult when you, when like a desire to be understood, has a way of like spiking every volleyball.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Alan: And when you talk about compassion, you bring up a thought. I wonder if you make this distinction that, that I do. That empathy is not the same as compassion. In my mind.

Kate: Yeah. Tell me more.

Alan: Because empathy can open the door to compassion. But not necessarily. And it’s not necessarily what you need in a given moment. If you’re talking to someone you care about. And you get a glimpse into what they’re feeling. You can use your decision to be compassionate, to help them, help them be better off. If you’re talking to a used car salesman and you empathically determine that this person is talking a line of crap. Compassion is not the way to go. Confronting him with the facts or just leaving is the way to go, it seems to me. But so therefore I think of empathy as a tool. And people can use it to your disadvantage. The used car salesman is sizing me up, trying to figure out what makes me excited. What makes me buy, not what’s good for me, but what makes me buy.

Kate: That’s so helpful, Alan, I hadn’t thought, I hadn’t thought enough about that because, I mean, I’ve, I’ve seen all kinds of different forms of that emotional intuition that, that ability to read other people’s emotions. That really cuts both ways. Like, there’s a particular word for people who can really carefully read other people’s emotions, and then they manipulate it and feed off of it. And that is the word ghouls. And you and you meet them every now and then and you’re like, oh God. I keep thinking, oh my gosh, you’re really, you are deeply empathetic and it scares the crap out of me.

Alan: Yeah. An emotional abuser is pretty good at knowing where your weak spots are, where your,  what will really hurt. And a backhanded compliment that they don’t have to take credit for being cruel about is a great way to get you right where you, you don’t want to be got.

Kate: Yeah. I’m just thinking about what you said about practicing. And I wonder, are there gifts in aging when it comes to communication?

Alan: Yeah. You can’t hear all the bad things people say. You can pretend you didn’t hear.

Kate: I did used to play in my cello quartet a lot at retirement homes. And I can always tell when my, like, Stravinsky was going badly because I could just see one hand go up to, to a, to a hearing aid and just, like, bee-oop me out. And I was like, I can see you. I know what you’re doing.

Alan: That’s funny. I think it helps, it can help in a lot of ways. But empathy, I don’t know. Depends. If you’ve been work—it gives you more time to work on it. You’re there longer. But I don’t know if there’s anything about it… One good thing about aging seems to be that more insignificant things drop away. It doesn’t bother me as much if I’m really badly in need of a haircut. I literally have the thought. Hey. I’m old. What are they going to say?

Kate: That’s nice. I like that.

Alan: They’re gonna say, he’s old.

Kate: I read a poem the other day where someone was described as having a raw old age, like a wild old age, and I loved it. It described to me, described growing into a kind of permission to say and do, that, that I thought was lovely.

Alan: What do they do, eat ice cream for breakfast? How wild are they?

Kate: I think they were describing some ferocious truth-telling. But I did like it.

Alan: Oh, oh, I see.

Kate: Yeah. One of the things that seems very core to you is you have a very, I’m thinking about what you said about perspective and what things, how to make a big deal, perhaps of some things and not others, which I find so refreshing. But you’ve been through a lot in the last few years, which you’ve also, I mean, been very I don’t want to say nonchalant, but really like, hey, this this is… I remember the last time we talked and you’d have this, like, life or death situation and you’re like, yeah, and that’s what that was. And so when I heard about your diagnosis, I thought, this is a man who’s going to be a combination of, he’s going to have some deep acceptance about this.

Alan: Well, I really do believe reality is our friend. To ignore reality can be really life-threatening. So when I got the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, I only got the diagnosis because I insisted on more tests. The only clue I had Parkinson’s was that I saw an article in a newspaper, a column on health, that described a couple of doctors who were rare in finding that people who acted out their dreams, right, what’s called REM sleep disorder, often were diagnosed later with Parkinson’s. And I, I, I had several of these strange experiences while dreaming where one was somebody was attacking me. And I picked up a sack of potatoes and threw it at them. And in reality, I was throwing a pillow with my wife. So then it was two things to worry about. One, what else would I throw at her if this went on? And what did it mean that I had Parkinson’s? I went to a doctor who gave me a physical test for Parkinson’s and said he didn’t see any sign that I had it. And I insisted on a scan, which I’m not sure now is definitive. But after the scan he said no, I see deposits of plaque and you got it. Well. Knowing that gave me the chance to start an exercise program quickly. And there are, and people I know who, now that a lot of people know I have Parkinson’s, friends and people I don’t even know or asking me for advice. And there’s a surprising number of people who don’t want to believe that an exercise program structured especially for Parkinson’s, can hold off the progression of the disease for quite a while. And it still is going to progress no matter what you do at the moment, there’s no accepted cure for it, there’s certainly no cure for it and even the alleviation of the symptoms. Is good for some people with certain regiments, but not everybody.

Kate: It reminds me of, the prayer that I started praying right when I got sick. Was, God, let me see things as they really are. I just, I couldn’t figure out a way around… I wanted to avoid the worst of everything, and I knew that I couldn’t quite, because I was so scared, I knew I couldn’t quite even let my thoughts settle on what was really happening, but I knew that I should probably try to get there. So that was, I thought, I always felt like that was my sanest prayer. Like, okay, God.

Alan: What was your most insane prayer?

Kate: Oh, just fix everything, also cure mortality. That’s just the, why can’t you make an exception for me? I know, yeah.

Alan: You know, I, I don’t know where it comes from. I wish I could figure out how to help people achieve something that I had automatically. I’m, it sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m not, because it was automatic. I didn’t, I didn’t work on this, but there was a moment when I needed emergency surgery. 20 years ago, almost exactly 20 years ago, I was in Chile on top of a mountain. And I had an obstruction in my gut that meant if it exploded I’d be dead within a couple of hours. They got me down the mountain in an hour. Bumpy ride down a dirt road. To a hospital in the middle of the night. And the doctor quickly diagnosed it as what it was and told me that I needed surgery. And within a few minutes they were putting this thing over my face to put me out. And in that moment I thought, well, I might not wake up from this. So I want to get word to my wife and children and grandchildren. So I, I dictated a note, which, oh, it was kind of prosaic. Not much you can say that’s meaningful. And anyway, the person I dictated it to lost the note. Which is perfect. I mean, it’s exactly, it matches the the utility of what I said. But the moment when I thought, well, I might not wake up from this. I was, I felt so lucky to have that reaction. But I wonder if it’s not more common. I wonder if you’re really, really faced with this side of the revolving door, or the other side of the revolving door. What’s, what’s you’re feeling? Is it like, oh, well. Well, this was inevitable.

Kate: I don’t think so. I am…

Alan: It’s like a joke. You don’t know what the punchline is going to be, but when it comes up, it makes you laugh.

Kate: Yes, it does feel like that bubbly feeling, doesn’t it? I mean it… It is… There are some thoughts that feel almost impossible to land, but then in the middle of it. I’m always just so grateful, though, that there is moments of like, crystalline clarity in it. And then you can, when you get one, you just you, you have to, you have to keep it as long as possible. Like, these are my loves, these are all the things I could never live without, these are the things that people might have to live with or without me. You know, there’s a, there’s a, a wonderful, brutal stripping away that can happen. I think when we see reality or we try to make reality into our friend for a second, I’m sure we all do it in bits and pieces, but it sounds like you’re good at reality.

Alan: Well, it may just be denial. I think denial has been good for me.

Kate: Tell me how, tell me how.

Alan: Well, you don’t suffer as much. You remind me, I mean, again, I don’t take credit for it, I don’t, I don’t promote denial. I don’t, I don’t I don’t practice it and see if I can get better.

Kate: Or if you did, you would deny it.

Alan: Yeah. That’s right. Maybe that’s what it is.

Kate: I am curious about, because last time we talked, when you describe not being afraid of death, I wonder if that’s related to the feeling, which is, I don’t know, a determination to only suffer as much as you need to? Like you’ll, you’ll manage things as… I mean, I think this is how I felt about incurable cancer, which was incurable at the time. And then has subsequently been more curable than I realized. Was taking things bit by bit, saved me from trying to suffer all at once. It sounds like that’s been part of how you’ve managed Parkinson’s.

Alan: That may be, but it also sounds like something unconscious. An unconscious mechanism. I mean, can you decide? Maybe you can. Can you decide to not suffer more than you have to because of? Sometimes you can’t help it. It reminds me. Of someone I know who teaches empathy to doctors. But she also teaches them when to pull back on the empathy. So they don’t burn themselves out. Enough empathy to know what the patient is going through, what is the best way to help them understand what’s happening to them. But not so much that they suffer what every patient suffers because we’re getting hit with a lot of stuff to be empathic about. So she helps them get in and get out. And that’s a little like what you’re talking about, about not suffering more than you have to.

Kate: Yeah. I wonder if that’s part of, retirement. Honestly, I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement because I have all kinds of friends who are retiring, and they, they try to explain transitions that they make, one in which they just sort of stopped the job that they were doing. And that’s, that’s always, I think, really not at all what retirement is, which is a kind of long existential process. Which, that seems to have phases, like phases of deciding what feeds you, what excites you, and then maybe what exhausts you. How have you been making those decisions? I’m saying that because you are like 277 episodes into your podcast, sir.

Alan: Well, and I had no idea that I was going to be so interested in it, that I’d devote so much time to it. But it grew out of an interest that I had, which was exercising my curiosity, I guess, about pretty much everything. And communication and that kind of thing. And I don’t know how anybody retires from a job or line of work without having already established interests in other things that they can now be obsessive about.

Kate: What kind of other stuff gets your obsessive interest? Are you into birding? I mean, because I’ve really, I’ve always struggled with finding other things to be obsessive about. I’m obsessive about people and, you know, whatever I’m researching. But I’ve just never been a hobby person. And so I do imagine that retirement would be a horrible existential tar pit.

Alan: Well, I, I can’t. I’m, I’m interested in so many things. If I had the time, I’d be obsessed with wWriting code for the computer.

Kate: Would you? Wow.

Alan: Yeah, but I don’t. I’m obsessed about writing. And even when I don’t have the time, I find myself writing something which, because I’m not obsessed, isn’t as good as it should be. But I, the things I’ve done that were not my regular professional pursuits have been things that I was just always into, always curious about, always muddling around in. And, and many of those things come together on the podcast, so I’m very happy. And I still once in a while get an offer to act. And I love acting. So, so far because of the Parkinson’s I can, I can play either, either or, I can play anybody with Parkinson’s or I can do a really good milkshake.

Kate: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. You were in Marriage Story, right? Oh, my gosh, you were so good.

Alan: Yeah, he, he, the director let the tremors show. I thought I was hiding my, my hand was under the desk in one shot. And, and I and I and I got my hands still. And then of couse my whole body shook. It’s got to come out somewhere. In the last 3 or 4 things I’ve done. It’s been a kind of a subtext, but I think that’s fine because one of the ways people suffer with that disease, and I’m sure many other diseases, is that there’s a stigma associated with. The public isn’t aware because people hide in the early, Hide the early stages and it’s a vicious circle. Let’s start on 1 in 1 part of the circle because people hide the early parts of the symptoms, the public generally only sees Parkinson’s patients at their worst. Near the end. Either they’re in a wheelchair or they’re stumbling around as if they’re drunk. Part of that stigma would go away if people saw that the only symptom was a little twitch in the thumb. Or something even lighter than that. And you could, there are there are thousands and thousands of people that will have normal lives and have Parkinson’s. It would be a little better for everybody, I think, if they could be open about it. But they’re, they’re blocked from that because there’s a genuine fear. If they know I have Parkinson’s, will they keep me on? Will somebody make a long term arrangement with me if I’m going to be stricken before too long. So the ignorance about it, unfamiliarity with it. Not being able to take it in stride, is not good for the patients, not good for the public, not good for employers. It’s not good for mates, spouses, members of the family. They hear a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, they go, oh my God, that’s the worst thing that can happen. Not the worst thing that can happen because as they say, you don’t die from Parkinson’s. You die with. So to remove the stigma as much as possible. I mean, your openness about your cancer treatment is very helpful.

Kate: Thanks. I was, I got good advice early on about, I remember one of my first guests when she was asked, what can we do for people with cancer? And she was like, oh, give them jobs. You know, because guess, you know, like, casseroles are great, and also—

Alan: That’s good. Casseroles are great, but give them jobs

Kate: But most of us are living, you know, with things that we won’t, that will become part of life as a chronic condition. So let us have life as a chronic condition.

Alan: And you gave yourself a job with the podcast.

Kate: I did. I did. I needed something to take up more space. Because I thought, I kind of pictured it, like it would squeeze cancer down to a more manageable size. And I think that is actually exactly what happened.

Alan: Not obsessing about the cancer.

Kate: Yeah. And then I could, you know, you get, you get something to do. And then all of a sudden you have people to meet, and then you all of a sudden you have things to learn about, and then all of a sudden you’re thinking about something that’s not you and you’re dumb, horrible problems. And I found that to be, I think that’s part of for me also, the cure for self-pity. Is the more interested I am in other people, the less I…

Alan: Ah, good. That sounds very reasonable.

Kate: Well, it comes and goes. I have my moments.

Alan: Well, that’s the trouble with all the rules to live by. If you can achieve one once or twice a year.

Alan: Yes, yes. I guess that kind of humility brings us always back then to the feeling of wanting to know what we don’t know. Which I hope will just make us curious, Hungry, Hungry Hippos forever. Alan, I really love that about you. And that means I love your podcast, but I just, I love your, I love your genuine desire to be changed by what you learn from other people. And I hope, I hope I’ll become more like that. I really do.

Alan: Well, that’s you too. Thank you. It’s been fun talking with you.

Kate: Alan, you really are my favorite. And I’m sorry for all these compliments, but they are, they are genuine.

Alan: Well, you have no right to speak to me that way.

Kate: Isn’t he completely wonderful? And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. He’s just wonderful all the time. So if you want to hear a masterclass on empathy, go listen to my first conversation with Alan. He’s so good on the topic of empathy because of his training as an actor and really learning how to read the person in front of him. He created these classes for healthcare professionals so that they, too, could use acting skills to practice empathy with their patients. And that’s such a great idea. Like, think of the situation that you’re in most often as the little stage in which you operate as a person who needs to learn to respond and then improve those skills. I know, amazing. I thought maybe we could close today with a blessing for something that Alan is doing beautifully, which is aging gracefully. And it’s a blessing from the book, The Lives We Actually Have. And I thought you’d like it. Here it goes.

Kate: Blessed are you who have reached a new age, even if it doesn’t seem to fit. It may feel too big, too reductive, too limiting. It may be marked by a life you barely recognize. The kids who have all moved out or settled somewhere far away, or they’ve never left. And you’re wondering if you’ll ever get that home office. The work that no longer sets the daily hum. The life partner who is gone. And friends you’ve outlived. The body, which doesn’t allow for the hobbies you loved anymore. The monthly check that doesn’t provide the flexibility you’d hoped for. Wasn’t I young just a second ago? Will ever recognize the person staring back in the mirror? What’s left to do that really counts? How do I know if I am or ever was enough? God gave us eyes to notice the ways life can still be beautiful and rich and full in the midst of so much that has been lost. Remind us that you are not done with us yet. For the God who spoke us into being. Calls us even now. Not to an ideal or a role, but to a moment. This one. In a world that equates age with liability. It’s time for a reminder that you are a gift. You give advice. You hold on to family recipes. You remember that thing that happened and honestly, we shouldn’t have forgotten. You think our kids are beautiful and our bad partners should be soundly dumped. You kept the photo album. You hold our stories. Thank you. Even when the world isn’t paying attention. May you get a glimmer of a reminder that these little things add up to something that is and always will be, beautiful.

Kate: Thank you my loves, so good being with you today. And a huge thanks to our generous partners who makes everything possible at Everything Happens. The Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, and Duke Divinity School. Thank you. We love that you love theological education and faith in media projects like this one. This podcast is my very favorite kind of group project. So thank you to my wonderful team, the irreplaceable Jess Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, Sammi Filippi, and Katherine Smith. I love making beautiful things with you all, and we do it all because of and for listeners like you. Yes, you getting through that workout or you on your lunch break or you dreading the next phone call? You are our absolute favorite and we are so grateful to get to make useful things for you. Let us know who you want to hear from this season. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Oh my gosh, that stuff matters so much, so thank you. And it just takes a few seconds. Or call us and leave us a voicemail at (919) 322-8731. And I have a huge treat for you. Next week,I’ll be speaking with Maggie Jackson, who writes about our ability to endure uncertainty and why that’s actually a superpower. Okay, well, maybe she didn’t say superpower, but I think we all might be superheroes. Until then, this is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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