HAROLD RAMIS: November 21, 1944 - February 24, 2014
“A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.”Every once in awhile something I’ve recently learned about myself applies to an issue one of my kids is going through, and I share it with them. I’m not sure they even understand, as most of the time I’m only beginning to grasp the issue myself. In recent years I’ve been unfortunate enough to have things break so badly that I’ve had to take stock of my life, and fortunate enough to have been able to make a little sense of it. So when my thirteen-year old talked to me about negative self-talk that stemmed from anxiety, it was a topic I’d given considerable attention in recent years. I explained that this kind of negative self-talk was, in my opinion, a form of self-soothing – a replacement for self-care, a practice she was probably too young to understand and I was old and experienced enough to accept that I had never learned. The juxtaposition was too much for her; she flatly rejected the idea that something that provokes negative feelings could also be soothing. I explained that “soothing” or “pacifying” are not necessarily positive mental health features. I mentioned the quote about comedians (that may or may not be) from Harry Shearer, “Comedians get into comedy so that they can choose when the world is going to laugh at them.” Anxiety is like this version of comedy. The world is going to laugh at you, but maybe you can control it… slightly. For the anxious among us, “Things are going to go wrong. If I remind myself how bad I am and how deserving I am of the pain, it won’t hurt nearly as much.” It’s a form of control that is surprisingly effective as a temporary measure. But one temporary fix leads to the next, and before too long you’ve been at it for almost 48 years, and you’re listening to your child head down that path and you find yourself desperate to help her stop that cycle.
For Ramis, the move from defensive self-centeredness to selflessness was a life’s mission. It seeped through in almost everything he did. His work became so relatable to so many different spiritual struggles that different movements began to assume he was a fellow traveler. Groundhog Day was named one of the greatest Buddhist films of all time, and people incorrectly assumed Ramis was a practicing Buddhist. Drug and alcohol recovery programs assumed that it was a paean to the program, but Ramis was never a twelve-stepper. Instead, he had just touched on a universal aspect adulthood: we are all vulnerable, and we can either process that in a way that is self-centered or selfless. And few people could document that learning process as enjoyably as Harold Ramis.
So as I tried to explain to my daughter that negative self-talk might make her feel a little less vulnerable in the immediate moment, it was a terrible long-term strategy. And I couldn’t pretend it was a process that I had already mastered, but it was a goal I could continue to strive towards. A learning process I could welcome and try to master. And I thought of one of Ramis’ final acting roles in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, where Ramis’ three minutes of screen time basically steal the entire movie. Seth Rogen, playing Ramis’ son, tells his father that he has accidentally impregnated a woman that he barely knows. Rogen goes through every configuration of self-loathing and catastrophizing he can muster, while Ramis remains positive and upbeat. He acknowledges his son’s pending challenges, but never lets Rogen forget that he’s at the beginning of a joyous blessing. Ramis’ character admits to a parent’s lifetime of faults and ignorance and hypocrisies, but never loses his refrain about what a good thing this pregnancy is. Because the accidental pregnancy is all about Rogen’s character; it’s self-centered and totally self-focused. Ramis’ character continually expands the view to include the baby, the mother, the thrilled grandparents, and the immeasurable joys of parenthood. It was a perfect role for Harold Ramis at the end of his life. I only hope that all of us eventually take the same journey and learn to turn our vulnerabilities into miracles.