Lessons From the 4077th
For everyone who got the reference of the title, congratulations. Get yourself a cupcake. For anyone who didn’t, for fuck’s sake! Of all the things that have been shown on television, M*A*S*H is one of the very few things that is actually worth watching and re-watching. Get thee to your favorite e-commerce site and gleefully part with your hard earned cash so that you can bask in the glory that is M*A*S*H. If you don’t, I will think less of you.
I own the entire series of M*A*S*H on DVD plus M*A*S*H the movie. It was a gift to myself one Christmas. I’ve seen the entire series a number of times since then. I’m in the midst of a marathon right now. As I sit here typing, M*A*S*H is holding most of my attention so this post will probably take me a while to finish. When I started watching the series this time around, along with the usual reveling in the intelligent humor and sarcasm, I realized that M*A*S*H is full of lessons that are actually worth putting into practice. What follows is a reckoning of some of the lessons I have learned from watching it.
Lesson #1- Toilet paper is a precious commodity.
The denizens of the M*A*S*H 4077th talk about toilet paper a lot. There’s never enough while there’s always enough of shit they don’t need (like a gross of breast pumps.) Sometimes there are shortages that lead people to get creative. Books, newspapers, less-than-important paperwork (I’m pretty sure that the reason the Army requires everything in triplicate is so that in the event of a toilet paper shortage, there is always a back up supply of alternative tp.) I do not live in a war zone so toilet paper is much easier to obtain, thank goodness. What I have learned from the toilet paper situation at the 4077th is that as mundane and ubiquitous as tp is, it’s an integral part of daily life and should not be taken for granted. This is a lesson that applies not just to toilet paper but to everything else we routinely take for granted. Food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, and whatever else you use out of routine, with little thought for the item itself. What would your life be like if you had to use your left hand and a bowl of water instead of toilet paper to clean your butt? We live in an incredibly privileged society and for many the idea that clean water comes out of the tap whenever you want is a given. However, we are also part of the global community and many of our fellow humans either cannot access clean water or have to pay a huge portion of their limited income for an inadequate supply. As our population grows, clean water will become more and more commodified. My necessities are others luxuries. Others necessities are my luxuries.
Lesson #2- It’s often the simplest things that bring the most pleasure.
From cockroach races to no-talent nights, the members of the 4077th use whatever is at hand to entertain themselves. Radar has an earthworm farm and races those earthworms against cockroaches. BJ Hunnicut had a racing cockroach named Blue Velvet. Hawkeye describes Blue Velvet as ,”one of the great thoroughbred cockroaches of Korea.” If they can find fun in vermin, you can find fun without the aid of a TV. I do not own a TV, nor do I want to. Without one I avoid commercials, politics, news that will only piss me off, and giving money to a company for a privilege of watching The Bachelorette, Jersey Shore, or Extreme Couponing. The titles alone are enough to make me nauseous. I don’t need to see one episode of any of those “shows” to know that I would rather have a root canal and bikini wax at the same time than punish my eyes with that shit. Cartwheels in my living room, writing a letter, stargazing on my balcony- all of these are activities that bring a smile to my face, keep me occupied, and allow me to avoid the hysterical catatonia most TV shows would induce. Being able to find joy in simple activities- whether it’s knitting, cooking, doing hand stands, smelling roses, or earthworm husbandry- is a skill that will serve you well for a lifetime.
Lesson #3- Pets are wonderful.
Radar keeps a menagerie behind the mess tent. A skunk, guinea pigs, a tortoise, mice, rats, and, in one episode, a lamb are all members of the 4077th. Radar built cages for them, feeds them from the mess tent (and apologizes for the horrible food), and generally takes care of them. In return they keep him company and provide sympathetic ears when Frank Burns behaves like an ass. There have been studies that show petting a cat or dog lowers the blood pressure and reduces stress. My cat, formerly feral, greets me every time I come home. He is loving, maddening, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.
Lesson#4- Sarcasm does a body good.
If you’re reading this blogthing you probably already know this. Hawkeye, Trapper, BJ, Colonel Blake, Colonel Potter, Radar, Klinger, even Father Mulcahy- all employ varying degrees of sarcasm as a coping mechanism. Life is absurd and acknowledging that fact will add years to your life. Don’t make the mistake of taking it seriously. Doing so will only lead to tears. I speak from experience. Sarcasm makes it possible to laugh at people/things/situations that normally make you want to cry.
Lesson #5- Life is precious.
Everyone at the 4077th spends a lot of time performing what they describe as “meatball surgery”. They are 3 miles from the fighting. Death is a constant companion. The internecine squabbles are never more important than keeping others and themselves alive. Even though everyone hates Frank Burns (and later Charles Emerson Winchester, III) and frequently wishes him pain and penury, they never try to kill him. Considering that they are living in a war zone and are surrounded by weapons, enemies, and deadly fighting, the fact that Frank and Charles don’t meet with an untimely demise says a lot. Even though I am less than enthusiastic about most people, say I hate people more often than I say I like them, and generally wish to be anywhere most people aren’t, actively pursuing the death of others is something that I do not and would not do. In the third season, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake dies. Every time I watch that episode I cry. The emotion, the sadness and loss, that is conveyed by the characters is so palpable, I can’t help but be affected by it. In the first episode of the fifth season, a nurse has been struggling with the fact that with all the death, pain, and suffering happening around her, she can’t feel anything- no sadness, no happiness- she is numb. One of the patients, whom she befriended, dies and she feels nothing, she doesn’t cry. At the end she delivers a breech baby. As she is introducing the baby to the doctors, she’s crying. She says, “… this is Miss Sou Ling Sun, she was a breech. She may have come into the world backwards but she landed on her feet… it’s just life.”
Yes, I know that M*A*S*H is just an old TV show. It’s portrayal of war is a pale, much tamer version of actual war. The conflicts are fake, the people are fake, the whole thing is fake. All that is true. What’s also true is that as far as TV shows go, even several decades after it’s original air date, M*A*S*H is one of the smartest, funniest, and most socially conscious television shows available. Given that I could be taking lessons from a person named Snooki (I mean, oy vey. It’s one thing for your parents to give you a trendy, i.e. obnoxious, name. It’s a whole other thing to voluntarily bestow upon yourself a name that sounds like it’s the diminutive form of snooker [a billiards game] at best.) who looks like she’s been cured along with the prosciutto and stars on a TV show called Jersey Shore, taking lessons from smart, funny, and socially conscious characters, with the depth, flaws, and dreams of real people seems like the better life choice. Most real people aren’t deep, smart, funny, or socially conscious. If I want to be able to claim any one of those qualities as mine, having role models, fictional or otherwise, helps. I can’t think of many real people that I would want as role models. What are my options? Michele Bachmann? Lady Gaga? Um, pass. If I’m less than excited about being the same species as them, taking life lessons from them is not going to happen.