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'What If...': Shirley MacLaine ponders life's big questions and the meaning of it all

Storied screen actress Shirley MacLaine is a revered Hollywood veteran and Academy Award winner. But beyond her remarkable career, MacLaine has also garnered a reputation for thinking outside the box. In "What If...," she takes a step back to ruminate on the world around her and the possible reasons behind it all. Here's an excerpt. INTRODUCTIONIt’s Good Friday 2013, and I’m wondering what’

Storied screen actress Shirley MacLaine is a revered Hollywood veteran and Academy Award winner. But beyond her remarkable career, MacLaine has also garnered a reputation for thinking outside the box. In "What If...," she takes a step back to ruminate on the world around her and the possible reasons behind it all. Here's an excerpt. 


'What If...'

It’s Good Friday 2013, and I’m wondering what’s so “good” about it. It seems that everywhere I go things are falling apart or a mess: wind and rain are turning into superstorms; road rage is an epidemic, maniacs behind the wheel even here in Santa Fe; shootings on freeways in L.A.; emotional terrorism from people in positions of authority in airports. On a daily basis packages are lost, products are defective, repairs never work, workmen don’t show up, computers crash, the cable goes out. Asteroids and meteors fall to Earth, and governments are too paralyzed to help their people or themselves. Everyone talks about money all the time and where to get “a deal.” People answer questions with more questions. New Yorkers plow ahead down the sidewalks or in the streets, not blinking at crippling traffic or noticing the ear-shattering noise of seemingly endless construction. Angelinos build their fences higher and bury their heads deeper. Nobody seems to talk with clarity. I just want to stay at home either in Malibu or Santa Fe. What is happening? Is this daily trauma of a thousand small pecks a wake-up call telling us that we, the human race, may simply have gone too far for a cleanup?

It’s actually become a bad comedy to me: nothing works. Our once-disciplined work ethic has evaporated, and many people seem to be just waiting for time off so they can indulge in another handful of painkillers. People complain about unemployment, but for the most part, they don’t like what they do anyway.

Thank goodness that’s not my story. In my line of work, I’ve gotten to be a whole host of other people and I’ve gotten paid pretty well for it. But the truth is I’m not unique. All of us are really a collection of assorted people. Each of us is a myriad of personalities and identities; most of us simply have not caught up to the richness and complexity of who we really are. I am beginning to believe we are our own best entertainment. To paraphrase that wise man named Shakespeare, we are simply actors in our own self-created plays, believing that the fiction that we fancy is real.

Working in Hollywood, I live in a “what if” world, where there are multiple blue-sky meetings before any project: “What if the leading man is ugly instead of handsome?” “What if he doesn’t die in the end?” “What if we think he’s dead, but he’s not?” Over the years, I’ve noticed that all these what-ifs in my “reel” life have led me to adopt a similarly speculative stance in my “real” life. There’s a lot to be gained from asking yourself, “What if…”

For example, what if, on this Good Friday a couple of thousand years ago, Jesus didn’t die on the Cross, but instead got married, had children, and traveled incognito for the rest of his life? What if Mary Magdalene was the missing mistress in the Last Supper paintings? What kind of impact would that have on the modern-day Church, its teachings, its sense of itself? There have been books bragging about various authors’ research into such matters, and I’ll admit I have read most of them, but not many exploring what such a fact would mean. I subscribe to the saying “One man’s sacrilege is another man’s truth.” I like to think that I’m open to exploring anything, always questioning, trying to live free of preconceptions and blind certainties.

Hear an excerpt from the audiobook of Shirley MacLaine's 'What If...'

It’s fun to speculate—it’s an entertainment, and entertainment is my life. I’ve always believed that I owe my talent to my innate curiosity more than anything else. To me, imagination is more sacred and powerful than knowledge. Maybe we have even imagined ourselves into believing we are real when in fact we are a grand illusion dreamed up by some other species. Perhaps Shakespeare was right after all—and I mean literally correct, not metaphorically—when he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, [births and deaths] / And one man in his time plays many parts [has many identities]...” I know several intelligent scientists who believe it might be possible to prove that the human race and our dramatic shenanigans are actually an extraterrestrial pageant of some kind, with actors (that would be us!) who believe wholeheartedly in their characters’ dramatic story arc—a “reality television” of sorts for the ETs.

That may be true, but I’m mindful of Stephen Hawking’s warning: “Be careful of embracing extraterrestrial life, should there be such a thing. Remember what happened to the natives in North America with the arrival of the white man.” That was a pretty bad “scene,” wouldn’t you say?

Stephen himself is a wonderful example of sophisticated, yet practical, illusion. It seems that he is confined to his wheelchair, incapable of moving anything but his right eye. But I believe he travels and moves about with more brilliance and curiosity than any other living person. I believe he leaves his body and soars in exploration of the cosmos, returning with reports of black holes and otherworldly civilizations.

I know him because for a time we had the same publisher. We met at parties and formed a friendship. When he’d come to America, I’d host parties for him, inviting people who weren’t exactly part of my usual crowd, but I loved meeting them.

He has two pictures over his desk at Cambridge University: one of Marilyn Monroe and one of Albert Einstein. He told me (through his electronic chair) that “the curves of the universe are as beautiful as Miss Monroe.” He also told me, and he has said so publicly, that he is certain he is the reincarnation of Sir Isaac Newton. He was born exactly three hundred years after Sir Isaac died, and he holds the Newton Chair at Cambridge.

Stephen Hawking is both a grand and a simple man. His intellect is without bounds, but it’s his humor and wit that attract me. When he was more agile, I used to watch him gleefully maneuver his “golden” wheelchair around the streets of Cambridge, defying anyone to get in his way. The word spread quickly around the campus that Stephen was on the loose again—Be alert!

When I was in the United Kingdom shooting Downton Abbey in 2012, I emailed him, and he invited me to lunch, but I received the invitation a day late. I was crestfallen. It made me ask myself whether the speed of a loving thought was faster than the speed of light (186,282.397 miles a second) and if I had missed his invitation because of it. I called him and, through his caretaker, asked him the question. He took a while before he answered via his chair. “The two are not comparable,” he said, making me laugh by giving such a scientific answer to my more “philosophical” question.

Maybe the truth is that nothing is comparable to anything else, particularly if each of us is our own universe and we create everything around us. That probably sounds like New Age blather, I know. But what if it’s true? I sit and talk with other people, confident in my belief that they are actually there, but what if they are only in my creative daytime dream, just as they might sometimes turn up in my dreams at night? Even more important—what if my night dreams are the expression of my internal yin (female) side, and the daytime dream reality is an expression of my more demonstrative external yang (male) side? What if each of us needs to respect the night and day illusions equally?

I would have to say the daytime (yang) masculine expression of “reality” is what has reduced the human race to the deterioration we are now experiencing, whereas the nighttime (yin) female reality might have afforded us the opportunity to search with more compassion and keener accuracy for who we are and what we really want. Of one thing I am certain: I create everyone and their behavior in my dreams at night. Why is it so hard to admit we are creating the same thing during the turmoil of our busy days?

Stephen Hawking has made a career out of studying and reveling in his imaginative journey of the cosmos, using his curiosity as a means to overcome the “seeming reality” of his wheelchair-bound days. I am pleased that such a proof driven scientist helps me to make my point about self created illusion. Stephen is devoid of self-pity and knows he is grander than he might seem. He once said to me, “Those who think I don’t believe in God don’t know me.” He looked up as if to show me he was seeing the “all there is,” and I could imagine him thinking, “It’s much more awe inspiring than our human definitions of God.” I thought to myself, “What if he sees so much more than any other human being because he isn’t terribly concerned with his physical condition?” Is that the message of his living so long without earthbound priorities?

Did he “create” the disease that has crippled him in order to learn to be dependent on caregivers and the kindness of strangers so that he could free his entire mind to the pursuit of knowledge? What if he inadvertently chose to set an example of himself to show the rest of us that cosmic travel and universal understanding are available, regardless of one’s physical condition or circumstance? If Jesus chose to die in a state of martyrdom, then Stephen Hawking could just as readily have chosen to live in a dual state of being: visible physical weakness and unseen knowledge and power. What if all reality is an illusion?

In any case, it’s a good Good Friday whether Jesus died on the Cross or not. He made us believe he died for our sins, and maybe he did. I wonder how he would define our “sins” today. Would he sound like a lefty hippie with New Age beliefs? He certainly was “New Age” in his time. Everything old is new again.

In the pages that follow, I explore the “what if” way of thinking. I’ve discovered that it has opened up my mind to all sorts of fascinating possibilities. I took events that I believed to be a given and asked myself, “What if…?” I found myself making a whole sequence of subsequent imaginative responses to things I’d taken for granted for years. I changed one historical “fact” and thought about the repercussions that that single difference would have made on all the events that followed.

I let my mind and imagination run free with the “what if” of it all.

My father’s favorite speculation was “What if a frog had wings?” His answer: “He wouldn’t bump his ass so much.”

Reprinted from What If... by Shirley MacLaine by arrangement with Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 2013 by Shirley MacLaine.