On Service: An Interview with Dr. Patch Adams


I remember listening to radio and early television as a child. The commercials for, say, an appliance store, or grocery store, or gas station, often included the phrase “Service with a Smile.” Of course, service without a smile is an oxymoron—then it is not service, but a lifeless act, an obligation, an impersonal job.

Dr. Patch Adams understands this “service with a smile.” In fact, he believes in and practices service with a belly laugh, with a guffaw, with giggles and farts and balloon humor. Like the Pied Piper, he lays an unending trail of laughter and smiles behind him, all of it still floating as a pulsating cloud of good humor somewhere in the atmosphere over this planet.

As a clown/humorist/humanist, Patch never fit into the mold of traditional physician, choosing instead to work outside the system in the way he felt most healing for his clients. Out of that work grew his dream of building a hospital in West Virginia, called Gesundheit, where medical personnel would volunteer all their work and all the healing would be provided free of charge. This Gesundheit dream would include ways to weave creativity and laughter into the hospital milieu on a daily basis.

Over the years, Patch traveled the world with his message of humor and laughter and joy and healing. He wrote a book about his experiences and dreams (Gesundheit), and, gradually, he acquired the land and a few modest buildings as a material beginning of this dream. Like a sticky rolling stone, he gradually gathered laughing, delighted friends and fans, became well-known (named a few years ago as one of the planet’s 25 most eccentric people), and, finally, has become a name in Hollywood.

Robin Williams is starring in the movie about Patch’s life and dreams, called, of course, Patch Adams. The movie will open this winter on Christmas Day. It has received, in its preview runs, the highest ratings of any film to be released from Universal Studios—higher ratings than Forrest Gump, for instance. And finally, because of the movie and the fame for Patch and for his ideas, Gesundheit, the hospital, may become a reality.

Years ago, I interviewed Patch for an EDGE article, and we became fast friends. He persuaded me to travel with him as a clown to Russia one November, and now I do it on a yearly basis with him. Because we are friends, we did the following interview at 2 a.m. one morning—the only time either of us could find to connect.

Why Service, Patch? What caused you to dedicate your life to Service?
Patch Adams:
I like giving. My mother liked giving. Doing something for somebody else feels good. Early on, when the political part came in and I got involved in the Civil Rights movement, helping injustice seemed even more important than any of the other stuff I was thinking or talking about.

Do you have any idea why giving feels good?
I suspect there are probably several thousand reasons. I’m sure there are biochemical and physiologic reasons. And I think it’s probably connected to being a great ape. For most of human history, we lived communally in groups, and it was part of the security and nature of groups to help each other and groom each other. It could have to do with grooming, picking fleas. I don’t know. Somehow, from those millions of years when we did act interdependent on each other, that grew into, in civilization, the act of giving, since we didn’t live under a tree anymore.

There’s so many ways giving feels good. It feels good to have the security of friends, the growth of friendship. If somebody loves, it makes sense they would like to spend it by giving.

Besides it feeling good, what do you see as some of the other benefits of living a life of service.
Certainly it’s the shortest path to meaning. Meaning is important in people’s lives. It’s a great attractive force for karma. Good begets good. And, I’ve been a giant attractive force for friendship. Also, givers get trust quicker than other people. People trust generous people. If we didn’t use money as units of such a strong and pulsating force of value, we would be able to see values in our society that were actually much stronger than money. And the value of friendship and just deep human contact grows out of giving.
Giving is it’s own kind of insurance.

How So?
People like givers, people want to help givers. I get stuff all the time. I’m given to all the time, in so many ways—in love, in things, and offers of care—everything.

For instance, Maria got here because she was a giver in a bosom of givers. It went really smoothly—a great giver had a lot of great givers for friends, and what seems insurmountable by modern standards, happened. And the society would call it remarkable, amazing, where givers would say, “It’s nothing.”

Just doing the job?

I know, of course, of the constant service you do for the dream and the reality of Gesundheit, and of the many ways in which you give to Maria’s orphan project in Russia. Can you speak of some of the other ways in which you’re in service? Are there other arenas in which you are openly and overtly dedicated to service?
I think being publicly joyful is the most relentless one. I’m constantly giving a good feeling to the environment. I’m extremely intentional in making the environment around me playful and loving. I have great skill in that area, and I don’t ever let up. The letter writing (Patch writes personal letters to everyone who sends him one, and he gives out his address and phone number freely), all the clowning, just wearing loud clothes. I always hear words like, “I wish I had the courage to wear that.” So a lot of the giving is by setting an example.

The books I write are about giving. This movie (Patch Adams) is about giving. The products of one’s life reflect something, so I’m constantly trying to create experiences of giving. That’s what the clown trip to Russia is. That trip to Russia is more for the clowns going than the people in Russia. It’s trying to make givers out of people, relentless givers—two weeks of relentless giving—and have it feel so good to them they want to do it more.

This interview is giving. Most people are not going to start an interview at two in the morning. I have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, to go and give again, to go and teach two days at a school where I’m not being paid, using my own frequent flyer miles. And it all makes me high!

Of course, any movie starring Robin Williams is likely to do well, but why do you think this movie has received such high ratings?
The movie’s received high ratings because its inspiring, and it’s about inspiring giving. I think it’s going to be an example of “giving” having its day. In a lot of movies, “violence” or the “ridiculous” has its day.

Do you think the time for “giving” having its day has arrived on the planet? Is there a shift? Would this movie have been so warmly received ten years ago?
We’re at such a nadir, such depths—we’re filling our newspapers full of blow jobs, when there’s war in Kosovo. Where is meaning anywhere? I think the movie will be overly popular, because the damn world needs some good news.

Overly popular?
Well, I think its going to be exaggerated because the need is so great. It’s like if you’re really damn thirsty, a glass of water acts a lot differently than if it’s the third one you just drank. The amount of powerlessness that people feel, the amount of hopelessness, the ever shrinking middle class, the gap between rich and poor—the need for good news is great. All the messages our kids are getting is money-taking, not giving. Now, finally, there’s a story about giving.

If you get very quiet, and you listen very closely, you can hear that Van Allen belt of laughter and joy laid down in the atmosphere by Patch and his relentlessly joyful essence careening through life. And if you can hear it, and can feel joy, begin your own tradition of giving and service. Join in the fun.

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