Interview: Tom Shadyac of Life’s Operating Manual

Posted on May 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I am always happy to get another chance to talk to Tom Shadyac, the mega-successful Hollywood director (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bruce Almighty) who now devotes his time to exploring the meaning of life and sharing what he has learned. I last spoke to him about his documentary I AM.  Now he has written a book, Life’s Operating Manual: With the Fear and Truth Dialogues, and was nice enough to talk to me about it.

I like your imagined dialogue between fear and truth, especially when fear says you have to own things and truth says “I own this choice.”That was a really meaningful exchange.  Can you to talk a little bit about what ownership means?

We’ve limited ownership to things. And truth is saying is that ownership can be in a much larger context. So our society values ownership of material goods, properties, personal possessions and what I wanted to do is say you also must own the choices you make in your life. And so you must own the fact that you value community more than you value your things. You can own the fact that you value love more than you value profit. So it’s just a way again of looking at some of the concepts that we take as truth and turning them upside down.

If you turn it upside down you at least look what is scaring you right in the face and it’s generally less scary than you's operating manual

That’s all how dragons disappear. Not only in mythology but in our lives. I believe that any fear examines and if it doesn’t dissipate it very well may be a truth. So I don’t run across the freeway because it’s true because I will get hit by a car. If my fear is telling me I can’t have an honest conversation with my spouse or my parents, examine it and you see that it dissipates. You can actually can stand up in your own voice and have a respectful conversation.

It seems we live in a moment in history where it seems very easy to feel despair. How do you maintain a sense of joy when it must feel very frustrating?

Well first of all the results are not up to me. So my job is to share what I’m experiencing and what I am seeing and then feed the results into bigger hands. But I also know that a body kicks the hardest when it’s dying. So fear often peaks when something is about to be lost. So I think we see a lot of that fear even in the way we do business with each other. I think that people can see that it’s built on a house of stone and see that it’s going to fall and so I think that at that point fear begins to peak. So I don’t know where we are in this cycle. But I know that regardless of late in the cycle or early in the cycle of change, the truth remains the truth and you just want to stand on that.

But you feel called upon to deliver the message, so doesn’t it get frustrating when people don’t listen?

Well I’m a human being and I am having human experience so I would be telling you a half-truth if sometimes I don’t become frustrated or sad. But I get a hold on that quickly because I can see the arc of justice, the arc of the universe is bending towards justice and it may a long arc but it is still bending toward justice. So I can imagine how frustrating the first twelve people who started the anti-slavery movement were. Because people just didn’t see that beauty in all races. And now you look back and you say, “Wow.” Because they were standing on a truth it was just a matter of time. The way it is now for the rights for the gay and lesbian and transgendered community. The result to me is already written. The arc is bending toward their justice. And it may be frustrating now in the immediacy of it today but if you look at human history we always move towards justice even though we don’t see it in the present. So if you look at the arc of the human species over time it is an evolving arc. You see these turns. We don’t see them because we stay stuck in the day to day, in the crimes committed today. But we don’t see the acts of love. We don’t see the tending in the overall towards justice. So slavery while it still exists its illegal and while women are no longer considered property in most countries they are gaining more and more right believe it or not wars are happening with less frequency. So I lean on that and I think whoever set this universe up knows what , that energy knows what it’s doing and I do believe that energy makes love more powerful than hate. And if it were the other way around I would have no hope. But because it is so I believe that I trust in that law and that we will eventually wake up.

You write about the idea that DNA somehow knows the difference between joy and negative feelings.  And that a lot of the feelings of isolation are loneliness that people have is because they just don’t open their eyes to see that everything is connected to everything else and that they are a part of that.

If you could use your question as my answer I would be very happy.

What can you say in a book that you could not say in a movie? There so many different ways of getting a message across. Why do a book?

A movie is for visual imagery.  In the book you can get more into the thought process. You can dive a little deeper into an argument and a discussion. A movie is grounded in the term “move” so you’ve got to keep moving from image to image.  In a book you get to move but you move from idea to idea. So they are both moving but one is using visual imagery and that can be expansive but it also can limit you. So in a book I got to expand somewhat on some of the ideas. And also I am creating a lot of questions. I am shaking people’s foundational paradigm. That’s where fear comes in, the dialogue between fear and truth. As I was writing this book I could hear the questions. I could hear them through my own fear and in the questions of others. So that’s why I believe I created and followed that thread and wrote the book, with half of the book in dialogue. Because it’s one thing to read an essay and talk about the economy of the way we educate and fear immediately rises up and tries to stand on what is known and not what could be. And so fear calls everything unrealistic. And I think a book can be a potent tool for answering that. So the conversation is furthered. It becomes furthered inside the book itself. Whereas if I had written this book as simply essays there could have been a million questions arising and I could have written a follow up to answer those questions but I think with this one  we are able to widen the conversation and include the answers or a perspective on some of those questions.

Your research is so far reaching and multidisciplinary. How do you go about it?

I am a layman when it comes to much of this stuff but I read a lot. I am fascinated and curious. So I look for evidence when someone tells me a philosophical trope I know that trope needs to stand in the world or it is a trope. It doesn’t have any bearing on how we live. I found a wealth of evidence that science is discovering. And I have had the fortune of talking with some of the leading thinkers in cellular biology. Or whether it’s in other of the physical sciences that some like Linda Kaggert who is a friend and whose research and she’s a journalist and whose writings have opened me up to, I’ve been fortunate enough to get a sampling across many disciplines. And it makes sense to me. This gives me the philosophical reading and the spiritual reading that I have been doing for my whole life. Those connective ideas that support all the major faiths. Even our laws, that laws that we write are under girded by the same principles that our moral leaders espouse. And now I’m finding that morality inside of nature. And nature can be what we call aggressive and cruel but it’s not how nature thrives. And the moralists are simply coming on to tell us that if you want to live and you want to thrive. If you want to be a system that works well this is what you’ll follow. You’ll follow those moral laws that have been set up inside of life. And I heard that many times from Gandhi and Martin Luther King that they believe the moral principles were actually physical laws like gravity is a law. And just like gravity that law exacts itself whether you believe in it or not. So if I go out and hate today the law will tell me that will somehow diminish my health and my path, the freedom of my path. And we see that all the time in the lives of others. From stories of people who have chosen lives of hate and aggression and murder we see how it breaks down from their cellular biology to their ability to be free if you will. A murderer whether he’s convicted or not is always a murderer. He has to lie he has to create a world of lies and a web of lies that he is now stuck in.

Would you describe yourself today as happy?

Yes but let’s talk about what happiness is.  I’m much happier than ever. But I prefer the word contentment. I don’t walk around 24/7 smiling and with birds chirping around me.

There’s a difference between pleasure and happiness.

Happiness to me as I write in the book is an indication of the system working well. Like you say your computer is happy and it’s working well et cetera. And it’s not up to me to judge whether I am working well. I can tell you that I am working in a more content, efficient and joyous way than I have ever worked before. I embrace the ups and downs.  I am in all kinds of uncertainties now. I have such joy and fulfillment and I have areas of deep sorrow. And I embrace them all. I think that life is symphony and without the low notes you don’t get the base for the explosion of the high notes. I’ve learned to embrace and continuing to learn to embrace all of life’s colors.

We make a terrible mistake if we think that happiness is the essence of all sadness. I don’t think that’s true.  It’s sort of like white is all the colors of light mixed together. Happiness is all the emotions together.

Beautifully said.  Once again I choose your answer.

What’s next for you?

Have you seen the French film “The Intouchables?”  We’re remaking that here. Most of the English speaking world has not seen it. So we are remaking it here and were getting our cast together now.  Iit was a beautiful film. Hopefully we can bring to America and English speaking countries what worked about the French film and then we can add a layer of depth and maybe even humor. Because we get a second crack at their brilliant work.


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