You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Friday, 13 December 2013

of the Black Dog, the Idiot Box and the MASH Unit

Like most of my generation, I grew up watching an awful lot of television. An awful lot of crappy, often American television with all the brainwashing advertising in between. I certainly developed addictive behaviours toward televsion viewing as a child. Once I was grown up, I decided that that was bad. When I had my own place, I lived without television, and had no doubt that I was better off. When I thought of people who use television to deal with their moods, I had nightmarish visions of overweight women in pink, Tim-Tam-crumb-infested nighties watching Ricki Lake and home shopping infomercials. As long as I didn't have a television set, that could never be me. I sure as hell wasn't giving up the Tim Tams.

However, I did go out of my house sometimes. Sometimes I was in other people's houses. So I still got to see plenty of television here and there over the years. And I came to understand that there's a lot of really good stuff on television, too, and to appreciate the benefits of the television age. I came to understand that watching television to manage depression doesn't have to be so destructive to the soul - that there are programmes that can heal, and inspire, and teach, and bring joy and compassion. I also came to learn that just 'zoning out' on something trashy is not such a spiritually dangerous practise, if used in moderation. Sometimes, it's just what you need to get through the night. I came to learn that that's okay.

Most people have some kind of favourite show or movie they like to watch when they're overwhelmed by the blues, whether it's a tearjerker that will help them to release their emotions, or a comedy to get them laughing, or the kind of trash that just turns off their brain for a while when it's all too much. All these approaches have their benefits at times. Over the years, I've found one TV series in particular to be the best companion for me and my Black Dog, and that is M*A*S*H.

Most people I know remember watching MASH when they were kids. I seemed to have missed it during my childhood years - maybe it was on the other channel when I was watching Murder, She Wrote, who knows. It wasn't until I in my late 20's, when I was living in a hotel room in Sydney, that it came to my attention. Hotel rooms come with televisions, it was as simple as that. Of course, I started turning it on now and then. And then more frequently. MASH was screening in the late afternoons. The weeks went on, and I was falling in love with this motley collection of characters in their mad, constant juxtapostition of hilarity and tragedy. But the more I watched it, the more I noticed that it certainly had an improving effect on my spirits. I often found myself reeling from the emotion in a given episode, but mostly I noticed that I found myself inspired. I don't mean inspired to go and do some great thing, but inspired just to keep going. Just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going on and meeting what needs to be done. It's enough of a great thing, just to keep going on, when the Black Dog has you by the scruff of the neck. Soon it had become my favourite show to watch when Things Get Rough. Now I have all the episodes on mp4 here in my computer, and it's what I turn to whenever my brain is not being functional enough to do anything useful.

MASH is special because it brilliantly realises the oxymoron inherent in a story that is a comedy, but also a war story. It succeeds because it is not a comedy about war; that would be tasteless. It is a comedy about humanity in the face of the horror of war, and therefore, about survival.

I've found a lot of shows set during times of war to be inspiring in this harsh, fight-for-survival sense of the word, and helpful for me to find an attitude with which to approach the impossible realities of life. But many war-themed series and movies can also be confronting or traumatic, depressing in themselves for their bleak outlook. On the other hand, frivolous comedies that can raise an easy laugh can seem insultingly trivial in the face of real suffering. MASH is a gift in that it strikes just the right note, pays equal and handsome homage both to the reality of suffering and the irrepressible audacity of human nature that laughs and sings wherever it can, and that makes survival in these circumstances possible. I think the stroke of genius here was the setting in a medical unit. This setting eases a lot of the conflict and confrontation that a lot of people feel about characters who are participating in a war. It may be easier to have sympathy for a military man who spends his career as a doctor than as a soldier. It may even be easier to find empathy for a man who has been drafted into military service in a hospital than for another man who is similarly drafted against his will, but required to kill people as part of his service. The main characters in MASH operate in a context of providing care rather than an aggressive force, stranded in a tiny oasis of a healing centre in the midst of a greater, sprawling conflict. Within this more neutral context, the narrative, however, continually redirects the characters' and the viewers' attention to the ultimate purpose and reason for being of the MASH unit - the blood, the cries and the pain of young men who have been to war, and the consequences they will live with forever.

Hawkeye Pierce is absolutely my hero. I am so in love with him.

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He's my hero because he's not really a hero, and he certainly has no desire to be a hero. He's just a regular person dealing with stuff that happens. Well, maybe he's not so very regular. He's basically a good, caring, compassionate person, which I guess makes him somewhat above-average to start with, and he's really very clever, which means he can be a doctor, and be so side-splittingly funny. He's sensitive and intelligent enough to be fully aware of the absurdity and inhumanity of his situation. But he can also be foolish, petty, or vain. He makes mistakes, and he has regrets. He's my hero because he lives with all this, and he gets up each morning, and puts one foot in front of the other, and does his best in the face of endless carnage and pain. He's also my hero because he still manages to find the energy to rail and rage at the outrageous injustice of what he has to face. He accepts it, but he will never find it acceptable.

Colonel Sherman Potter, the commanding officer, is the man that I would wish to have for a father or a grandfather. He's the man you would want to have in charge, if there were a war going on out there. Intelligent, perceptive, kind, utterly dependable and absolutely the salt of the earth, he is level-headed and hard-headed enough to maintain an effective, competent command when the proverbial hits the fan. I love him because he is so very practical, refusing to stand on ceremony when there just isn't time for 'all that bull-hockey', and yet so very morally upright - a genuine old-fashioned gentleman.

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Radar O'Reilly is so adorable I just wish I could adopt him and keep him at home like a pet. He's so sweet and innocent I wonder if there even could be such a person left in the world anymore. He appears, and seems to feel, so insignificant, but it's clear to almost everyone that the whole place depends on him to hold together.

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Even Dr Charles Winchester, who is such an incredible pain in the arse, displays great depth of character throughout his tour of duty. I love him because he actually is good enough to be that arrogant - he really is a brilliant surgeon, and he bears his duties as bravely as all the others when it comes to the crunch. For all he might whinge and whine, he does the right thing, because his morals hold him to do so, and he holds to his morals. I love him because he sticks to his values so consistently, even when it causes him pain, or to be completely ridiculous, to do so.

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These are fictional characters, but they represent real people. Every war has had its medical units, its doctors and nurses. Real people lived like this. Every war has also seen profound and radical acts of kindness as well as those of aggression and violence. The human race has gotten to where it is as a result of both kinds of extraordinary behaviour. Throughout history, people have lived like this, doing the best they can to keep going, to keep doing their best according to what they know to be right. It's as terrible as it is marvellous, the capacity of humanity to keep surviving in the face of extraordinary hardship. I am reminded of all the lives, all the hours and years of toil, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the story of human history, and I am awed, and humbled, and inspired to keep going with my little part of the story. Father Mulcahy sums it up one episode when he's been having a bit of a hard time, and has to get some perspective. He says, "It doesn't matter whether you feel useful or not when you're moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving."

Obviously, I'm not living in a war zone, here in the lucky country. I go into town, and there are no soldiers with uniforms and guns. There are tourists with shorts and singlets and cafe lattes. But we all, if we open our eyes, must see that we live with the seeds of hostility, the examples of injustice, prejudice and alienation, still, even, the outright senseless violence, in our society. You only have to listen to the news, even if it's not actually happening to you. I don't have to live with violence directly in my life, but as a carer, I am called to bear witness to what seems to be unbearable pain just about every bloody day. In this sense, the war can come to any one of us at any time. I pray that I can live my wars as well as these people.

And, of course, in between the blood and the shellfire, MASH is bloody funny. We know now the benefits of simply laughing out loud. For Hawkeye, laughter was much more than entertainment, it was a survival technique. 

I would have liked to put together a little clip of my favourite bits for you, but alas, I am lacking the technological equipment and knowledge to achieve such a feat, so we'll make do with a little clip of someone else's favourite bits, courtesy of YouTube.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you dear Lady for your post. Your words have helped me today. (And a happy Christmas to you. As well as a wonderful Winter.)

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