For Patch Adams, Good Health is a Laughing Matter

Get to know America’s funniest doctor.

| May/June 2004

  • A Pied Piper in floppy shoes, Patch attracted throngs of children wherever he went in this Macedonian refugee camp.

America’s most famous medical-doctor clown is a funny guy with a serious prescription for transforming our health — individually, as a nation and as cohabitants of our planet. For those interested in holistic approaches to health and healing, Dr. Patch Adams’ message is particularly resonant.

A few simple, sensible ideas provide the bedrock of Dr. Patch Adams’ philosophy, and they offer possibilities worth considering for anyone interested in health: Take responsibility for your own health. Be related to other human beings as members of the same community. Employ any healing technique that works. Give people the gifts of compassion, listening and time. And while you're at it, have some fun, why don’t you?

He’s not the Patch Adams you’d recognize from Robin Williams’ melodramatic portrayal in the movie that bears his name. For one thing, he’s a foot taller and serene, with eyes that alternately sparkle with mischief or become pools of lamentation as he reflects on the suffering that is both his grief and his life’s mission. For another, he’s not just a goofy guy in a clown nose tweaking the beard of hospital administrators who try to rein him in. A rabble-rouser and social activist, Adams has devoted 33 years to challenging the health-care system in the United States — a nation where millions of physically sound, well-fed people are miserable in mind and spirit, and where even more millions suffer from self-inflicted diseases he believes could be healed by the medicine of meaning.

A Life of Meaning

In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that what is authentic and genuine in humans is our desire for a life full of meaning. When our lives suffer from a deficit of meaning, the vacuum creates much emotional and physical mischief. The doctor’s task, Frankl says, isn’t to bury the symptoms under a mountain of medication, but to pilot the patient through the crisis and assist him in remaining on the path to his own growth and development. Adams’ clowning is a means to this end. His goofy antics serve as psychic dynamite, employed to disintegrate the granite of our inhibitions, which keep us from connecting with ourselves and with each other.

“When you ask people what they like about life,” Adams says, “they talk about the fun they have, whether it’s racing cars, working in the garden, dancing or writing books. People crave laughter as if it were an essential amino acid. But humor is often denied in the adult world. In the business, religious, medical and academic worlds, the stress is on seriousness and significance, as though humor is inappropriate. Human beings connect through humor, and deep connection creates health.

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