Twenty-five years later,
Leo Buscaglia still has a lot to teach us
© By Peter Barry Chowka
(July 15, 2008) Here it is, mid-July already and the height of summer. With the annual lazy, hazy, hot and humid days of the season upon us, it seems like a good time to temporarily put aside the politically-driven analysis and criticism that often inhabit this space in favor of an alternative – a brief review and a bit of a reflection on an interesting and inspirational individual who I had the good fortune to meet and interview exactly twenty-five years ago.
His name was Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D., and another, sadder, anniversary involving him just passed – it was ten years ago last month that Buscaglia died at age 74.
Leo Buscaglia 1987 (source)
When I traveled to southern California to spend some time with Buscaglia in February 1983, for a cover story interview that would appear in East West Journal three months later, he was one of the hardest people in the country to schedule a meeting with. Several years before, when he reached his mid-50s, he had rocketed to national fame as a best selling author, lecturer, and media talk show personality. By 1983 his schedule was booked so tightly that it took several months of pleading and planning with his staff for me to get an appointment with him.
Before coming to national prominence, Leo Buscaglia had toiled for several decades as an educator and administrator, earning advanced degrees, writing scholarly texts and articles, and making noteworthy contributions in the field of special needs education.
In the early 1970s, a non-credit course on the subject of love taught by Buscaglia, by then a professor of education at the University of Southern California, became extremely popular on campus. Before the end of the decade, Buscaglia was on a path of increasing visibility in all media, widely recognized as a dynamic and charismatic speaker and thought leader with a message that was especially resonant with mainstream America.
I first became aware of Buscaglia around 1980, when a Boston television talk show host on whose program he was appearing described him as “a national phenomenon!” As I wrote in the preface to my 1983 published interview with him, “Indeed, the usual superlatives seem pale in describing the exploding popularity and whirlwind activities of Leo, as the iconoclastic professor prefers to be known. In the last few years, Leo Buscaglia has become one of the country's most sought after lecturers and interview program guests, and one of the top three nonfiction authors (two of his books are currently on the best seller list).”
The radical simplicity of Buscaglia's message helped to catapult him to fame. Basically, he promoted, in a variety of creative and original ways, the recognition of the power of unconditional love in transforming the lives of individuals and the direction of modern society. After years of saccharine boy-meets-girl plots in novels and movies and a decade after the Beatles sang the hippie anthem “All You Need Is Love,” and in the midst of the proliferation of graphic how-to manuals on sex that were lining bookstore shelves, Buscaglia was working to redefine the meaning of the concept of “love” itself – replacing the long standing romantic and more recent free love stereotypes with a traditional, spontaneous, grounded and integrated behavior – a form of higher love, it might be said – that begins with a healthy self love and expands to embrace all in our surroundings. In this process of “re-learning how to love,” Buscaglia touched on many related issues, including living in the present, relationships, family, education, and attitudes toward death.
Buscaglia's enduring trademark which endeared him to millions of his fans was his practice of unselfconsciously touching or hugging nearly everyone with whom he came into contact. As he explained, “The psychological benefits of hugs are just now being discovered. It's like to power of laughter. We're finding that laughter gets a hormone in action that's a natural pain killer.”
Much of Buscaglia's dynamic, demonstrative, and charismatic personality derived from his family background. He grew up the youngest of four children in a poor but close knit Italian immigrant family in Los Angeles. His parents, he wrote, “didn't teach, they showed,” providing a rich “life-filled setting” and instilling in the young Leo an appreciation of “life as art.”
After serving in the military during World War II, Buscaglia attended the University of Southern California on the G.I. Bill, earning bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees (in language and speech pathology). He had an interest in and obvious gifts for teaching. Early on, he taught both handicapped and gifted children in elementary and secondary schools, and later rose in the ranks of the Pasadena school system administration. He lectured frequently to both professional and lay groups.
In the mid-1960s, unsatisfied with his work as an administrator, and before it became the hip thing for many young Americans to do, Buscaglia, then in his early forties, took a two-year sabbatical, trekking around Asia and immersing himself in the ways of life of people he encountered. He was especially drawn to Buddhism. The Way of the Bull (1973), the journalistic-like record of his travels, presents one of the better accounts of a Westerner's journey to the East.
Back home, teaching now at USC, and with the benefit of his exposure to a broader world, Buscaglia began to focus on the subject of love, teaching a non-credit course, Love 1A, that he designed from scratch. He pointed out that there was nothing else like his course on the subject being offered on an American campus, and virtually no serious non-fiction books devoted to the topic of love (apart from its sexual connotations), either. Although Buscaglia continued to work in his area of academic expertise (he wrote a major work in 1975, The Disabled and Their Parents: A Counseling Challenge), he gradually became known as the “professor of love,” and turned more and more of his research, writing, and speaking skills to this new and compelling area.
A series of books by Buscaglia emerged, including Love, Personhood, and Because I Am Human. In the late 1970s, videotapes of his lectures broadcast by PBS television stations around the country brought the charismatic Buscaglia to a mainstream nationwide audience and helped to catapult his books, including Living, Loving, and Learning (1981), to best seller status.
In February 1983, the day before I met Buscaglia for a several hour long private interview at the offices of Leo F. Buscaglia, Inc. in Pasadena, I attended his presentation at a Women's Day Luncheon at USC. His performance was true to form, just as I had seen him on TV. He delivered an emotional, but insightful and intelligent, anecdote-filled talk. Perspiring profusely, his arms and hands always in motion, his voice rising and falling, Buscaglia captivated the audience, using frequent injections of humor that, as often as not, included self-deprecating jibes. It was a virtuoso performance by a highly-skilled communicator. The Los Angeles Times described Buscaglia that day as a mix of Billy Graham and Pavarotti.
In the one-on-one interview and in follow-up phone calls, I found Buscaglia to be sincere, intense, and extremely focused. Not unexpectedly, he gave me a hug when I entered his office for our first meeting. Although he was obviously very tired if not totally burned out from over scheduling and constant travel, he concentrated intently on my questions and carefully considered each of his responses.
Here, then, are some significant excerpts from that 1983 interview, which remains for me a memorable and inspirational encounter with a truly remarkable man.
PETER BARRY CHOWKA: You've said many times that interviewers usually ask you the same questions over and over, and avoid asking many good ones. To begin then, what are some the media never ask that you would like to be asked?
LEO BUSCAGLIA, Ph.D.: Oh, what a way to start! (Laughs.) Right off the top of my head there is one. All of a sudden I find myself with some sort of celebrity status, and it seems to me that every time I deal with the media they challenge me to prove my validity as a human being and as a professional person. I often find this very difficult to have to deal with. So the question that I ask myself is, Why do you allow this to happen? Why don't you go away as you did before to a mountaintop in Nepal and stop going around to groups and talking about these things, and stop all of this public stuff – going to the media and talking with the media? But to run away now after twenty years of wanting desperately to communicate some of these ideas seems to me to be a cop out. Maybe for the next year or so I'm going to have to tolerate this kind of insulting approach to me as a person – this questioning of my honesty and credibility, the implication that I'm in it for the money or the notoriety or whatever; because I am offering an alternative that is much needed and that people are responding to dramatically. It's as if they've never heard of these things before and yet they have been said again and again and again. I recognize that if I have something to contribute it's not the originality of my ideas but the approach that I take – the very human, gut level approach to communication. You know, if I'm able to write scholarly articles and deliver scholarly papers but nobody's going to read them, then what good are they? So maybe my contribution is to interpret scholarly research in ways that Mrs' McGillicutty can understand when she's listening to me on the radio while making cookies for the kids she loves. And so I think therein lies the value of my work.
PETER CHOWKA: You recently underwent a quintuple heart bypass operation. Why do you think you got sick and what have you learned from the experience?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: I think it had to do with some kind of physiological hereditary factor. It wasn't so much that the experience of having a heart attack taught me anything particularly new; rather it was an affirmation of some of the things that I had been dreaming of. In other words, I had often thought, I'm not afraid of death. Those are easy words to say until someone is standing over you and you hear them say that you're in an extremely serious condition – that death is imminent. When you hear that, you have to come to terms with this reality; and I found myself saying, “It's all right. I've lived such an incredibly good life whatever is to come, I'm going to accept with the same kind of élan that I've lived my life.” So I affirmed to myself that I wasn't just talking, I truly meant it.
I also learned that a hospital is no place to get well in. A hospital may be a wonderful place for catastrophic illnesses, but once you yourself are able to start the process of wellness a doctor cannot make you well. A doctor is a facilitator of wellness, the way a psychologist or a psychiatrist is a facilitator of mental health. But a doctor cannot do it for you. A doctor can give you the alternatives like a teacher is a facilitator of knowledge, but he or she cannot teach you. Only you can teach yourself; only you can make yourself happy; only you can change. The responsibility has to be yours.
PETER CHOWKA: Do you think that your message is relevant to all people?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: Because it's a human message it's relevant to all human beings.
PETER CHOWKA: I raise this question because when you say that it's always possible to bring joy to despair, I think that is open to challenge by someone who has a really miserable existence. The message, you think, is really valid to them as well?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: The message is as valid as you want it to be. I'm not telling these people that they're situations are joyous. I'm telling them that if they will it, they can make the best of what they have. I always draw a parallel to my own childhood. We were very poor. I could not afford the things the other kids my age had. I never had a pair of skates; I never learned how to ride a bicycle because my parents couldn't afford to get me a bicycle; I was always wearing hand-me-down clothes from relatives; and so on. But that didn't make any difference to me because I had a different set of values, and my values didn't concern these material things. It isn't that I didn't want them, but there were things that I had that other people didn't have that were far more important. And that is, a lot of love, a lot of security, a lot of feeling that I belonged to a group. You know, you'll hear stories about people overcoming the most incredible non-humane situations. There are always ways of survival but it depends upon you – it depends upon what you want to do with it.
PETER CHOWKA: What about the role of the political system?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: I myself am not a political person. Recently, I was asked on public TV in Chicago, “Don't you think that you could help bring bigger changes if you were to be a political person?” I answered, “Well, if I did I would be unsuccessful like I was when I was an administrator,” because I can't tell people what to do. I can only offer them viable alternatives. I can tell myself what to do, but I can't tell you what to do.
PETER CHOWKA: And you really feel that, no matter what situation people find themselves in, your message is applicable?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: More so when you're down. You know, it's very easy to be loving and caring and sharing when everything's going your way. I think that when you approach life as being helpless and hopeless it becomes helpless and hopeless, but when you assume that it's going to get better, and that you do indeed have resources and dignity, then you behave that way, and it's easier to come out of the depression. I think that when you really need this kind of philosophy most is when all things are not going your way.
PETER CHOWKA: In Love, you say that it is important to live the moment instead of for the moment. What's the distinction?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: There is a tremendous difference – one entails an enormous amount of love, tenderness, caring, and responsibility; the other rather flippant. People who live for the moment live in a devil-may-care, crazy manner. Freedom entails a great deal of responsibility; it isn't license. And so you can't live fully for the moment but you live the moment, which means that no matter what you're planning or what you're dealing with you don't miss what's happening right now, because that is the only reality we have to deal with.
PETER CHOWKA: You spent six years working with disabled/special education children. How did that contribute to your present orientation? What did you bring away from that experience?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: Almost everything that I know now was affirmed more dramatically in that experience. I learned about individual differences. I learned about strength, about despair, about caring. I learned about perseverance and about being unwilling to give up. I learned that you could have thrust upon you the most trying of human conditions and you could rise above them. And that the spirit and the soul have nothing to do with the physical body, that they can rise to enormous heights. I've worked with quadriplegics who have more of a heightened experience with everyday life than people who have the use of all their limbs. So it really taught me what is truly essential. And it taught me about caring and loving and about stretching these concepts to what almost seemed to me at the time to be unreal dimensions.
PETER CHOWKA: I assume that you're optimistic about the future. If so, why?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: I'm optimistic because I do see concrete changes. I'm watching people's behavior change. I see people, for instance, more affectionate in airports over the last twenty years, from the time that they would extend their hand and say, “How do you do?,” to now, people hugging people. I think people are more open now to relationships, and to people relating publicly and letting one another know that they care about each other. I think people are beginning to celebrate life and togetherness and are beginning to re-evaluate the function of the family and the importance of long-lasting meaningful relationships. The shallowness of all other approaches has led us nowhere.
PETER CHOWKA: Could you briefly summarize what the major message is that you're trying to share with people?
LEO BUSCAGLIA: I'm trying to say something that has been said a thousand times or more, and probably better than I, but say it very simply; and that is, that life can be a celebration. We choose whether or not we want to celebrate it. If we want to live it fully, experience it fully, it's all there for us like it is for everyone else. If we don't, that's also our prerogative. But I would hope that people who don't choose to live fully in joy and in love and in peace would stop putting their hate and their despair and their inadequacies on other people. It's best summed up by the Dalai Lama, when he was here in Los Angeles. He said that the purpose of life is to help people, which is certainly something that I want to do. And then he smiled and said, “And if you can't help them, would you at least not hurt them!”
Peter Barry Chowka is a widely published writer and investigative journalist who writes about politics, health care, and the media. Between 1992 and 1994, he was an advisor to the National Institutes of Health. His Web site is: http://chowka.com
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