Wisdom From Harvey Fierstein

Sometimes, you stumble across wisdom in the least predictable places. 

Time Magazine recently had an interview with gay icon Harvey Fierstein,. The interview was triggered by the publication of Fierstein’s memoir, titled “I Was Better Last Night.” As you might expect from a writer known for his wit, the interview elicited some funny responses; for example, asked what had prompted him to write the memoir–what circumstances had led him to consider doing so–Fierstein replied, 

First, you arrange for a global pandemic. You clean your desk of all other garbage; then you look around the house for other things to do. I made five quilts. I walked the dog. And then the next thing—the only thing—I could possibly come up with, besides cleaning the refrigerator, which is nothing anybody ever wants to do, was to write my memoir.

The interview covered a number of more serious topics, several focused on Fierstein’s long history of activism on behalf of gay rights. But it was the following exchange that made me stop and reread both the question (in bold) and the answer.

You wrote about rehearsals for the Torch Song Trilogy, and a scene specifically where Estelle Getty took issue with a line from her character, when she tells her son, “It gets better.” She’s talking specifically about grief, but that phrase has become such a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community more broadly—and maybe too generally—in recent years. Do you think that’s been the case?

Whatever you survive becomes a triumph, right? And I think time, you know, does make things better. Does it bring somebody back to life? No. But makes it easier to take that breath without that incredible pain underneath. Do things get better politically just because time passes? No. You actually have to do the work. One thing that people don’t understand, and I don’t understand why they don’t understand, is that you can’t go backwards. Nothing goes backwards! If you want to go backwards in time, you’re just kidding yourself. Especially these days when you see this ‘Make America Great Again’ idiocy; I look at those people and what I see are these walking skeletons. Dead people. They’re not looking to the future, and if you’re not looking to the future you’re not alive. You are saying, I am no longer a force in the world. I am just a memory. And that’s no way to live.

This exchange highlighted the under-appreciated connection between the pain of loss and the utter uselessness of trying to reverse that loss. Reading it made me (marginally) more understanding of the people trying so desperately to return the country and the world to an earlier time that existed in their (very selective) memories.

Most of us who have reached a “certain age” have experienced the grief that comes when loved ones or friends of longstanding die, and we have no choice but to come to terms with the hole in our lives that results. Three years ago, I lost my best friend of 50 years, and Fierstein is exactly right when he says that “it gets better” is limited to the dulling of the pain, not its absence. 

He is definitely right when he points out what should be obvious: you can’t go back.

No matter how much you grieve–about a personal loss, about the disappearance of a social environment in which you felt comfortable–your grief, nostalgia and yearning won’t reverse what has happened. If you aren’t working on accepting changes you cannot undo, Fierstein is exactly right: you aren’t really living.

Reading the interview reminded me of my grandfather’s favorite saying: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

When people are unwilling to accept reality–when they are in denial–they are surrendering an important, even essential part of what makes us human. Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of loss; that pain also makes us human. It does mean that–as Fierstein eloquently framed it–if you’re not looking to the future, if you’re not engaging with your environment as it actually exists and making decisions about how you will continue that engagement, you aren’t truly alive.

Fierstein’s observation made me think of that famous line from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” where the young boy says “I see dead people.” 

So does Fierstein. So do I. A lot of them.


  1. Thanks Sheila. I was thinking about watching Harveys Torch Song Trilogy . Now I think that is an even better idea.

  2. Yes. Dead people. MAGA people are dead in a variety of ways pertaining to their standing in the social milieu. Their dear leader NEEDS them to be dead, because real, living minds see the fraud for what he is. What’s really sad for this country and all the other spin-offs from Trumpism, is that there are SO MANY who embrace their own dead intellects.

    Those dead intellects speak volumes about parenting and schooling. Churches that teach bigotry – whatever the form of it – and schools that teach nothing but the ABCs: Athletics, Band and Cheerleading, all contribute to this vacuousness among the 25%. That 25%, by the way, gets way too much publicity for what they’re worth. To rational people, the 25% are like driving slowly by an auto accident looking for the bodies. That conjures up the picture of that jackass sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk on 1/6/21.

  3. I highlighted several lines because acceptance and letting go is a process and an art. It also requires awareness and is a positive coping skill that many people do not possess. However, those that go through that pain develop compassion and empathy.

    Spiritual teachers talk about unity because we need to be around each other. After all, while some are suffering, others are flowing with compassion. When you are grieving or in pain, you tend to isolate or suffer in isolation. Suffering is optional.

    Being around others will ease the suffering. Knowing there is a power greater than you that cares for you relieves suffering. The pain is real but it’s also a teacher.

    This is why unity is so important for communities or groups of people. When we join together to share our grief or pain, there are bound to be others who have been through the pain and formed compassion who can ease the pain of those suffering.

    However, the current leadership in this country is NOT about unity, so the people need to ask why. Why are they using wedge issues to divide the masses?

    Trust me, it’s being done intentionally. It’s called oppression and it thrives on fear.

  4. “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” and “I see dead people.” Those comments cannot be separated if we are to have a future in this country and around the world.

    Aren’t we watching a repeat of Hitler’s past invasion of Poland which started WWII? Are we are not recognizing, or are we just not admitting, that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine IS the start of WWIII.

    The MSNBC and CNN interviews with retired military generals and our own ambassadors are trying to warn us to remember the past and to end this deadly repeat of WWII.

    I am again remembering Rhett Butler’s line from “Gone With The Wind” when he tried to tell the Confederate plantation owners, “There is as much money to be made from the destruction of a civilization as there is from building one.”

    We are, as always, at “Follow the money!”

  5. Another timely essay Professor, thank you. And, most of what Todd writes today is actually uplifting! A good start to Friday…

  6. There is only NOW. The past is gone. The future is the future. Live each day as if it is your last.

  7. Accepting reality…it’s easy to point to MAGA for not accepting realty, but I just read Politico’s interview with STephanie Murphy (D-Fl) who is retiring. She won in a tough red district in ’16 and unloads on how Democrats have taken a razor thin majority to push through a huge agenda that will tank the handful of new congress people like herself who gave us the majority. It’s sobering. So…it’s not just Republicans who aren’t facing reality.

  8. Sobering stuff…but, the “red lines” are where we can see them: ’22 House/Senate/state races, ’24 same + “commander-in-chief”. After that, we may all see “dead people”; per Pogo, they will be “us”.

    So, despair takes energy, use that NOW to instead to stem those rising tides, man/woman the boats. If you believe in an “us” here and around the world, take action. Stacey Abrams is a role model…

  9. Lester; Charles Manson’s preaching to his “family” was telling them to “come to NOW”. Of course, like Trumpism, he convinced them to come to HIS NOW. He was correct in one of his often used statements; “Man is raping the earth.” Truer today than it was then but ignored by those who deny Climate Change and the fact that Global Warming has continued “raping the earth” bringing us to conditions today. We are all paying for ignoring conditions “back then” when “We are destroying the environment.” had meaning just as we are ignoring the repeat of Hitler’s invasion of Poland which Putin today claims is his right to “military occupation” of Ukraine.

  10. Very nicely articulated.

    I think it’s inevitable that as an old order passes away, a segment of our population will deny and resist it, hard.

  11. We are all just piles of memories. At our age, large piles. Experience after experience after experience. Some we can recall, many we cannot but they are still reminding us of who we are.

    At issue here is the fact that while our memories last as long as we continue to add to them, the world around us changes all of the time. Many of our memories are not of the current world but times past. People do become obsolete, or rather our culture is adapted to a world that no longer exists.

    I think that just realizing and accepting that reality, not fighting it, is an adaptation to the fact that we only experience time as going in one direction. We surrender to the fact that going back will never happen to us or anyone.

    Mind to sharpen your tools often by paying attention to each new day and accepting that today has never been in your life before, yesterday will never be in your life again, tomorrow will be unlike anything that you have ever experienced before, and you are stuck with preparation for only yesterdays. You must use your tools to build each day in a new place. We wander alone and are nomads through time, arriving in a new place every hour.

  12. Perfect metaphor for those clinging to an empire that is no longer virile. It’s a new day, there is a new world order developing. Resistance to such truths have Americans clinging to outdated fears, et al. One such attempt at comfort is the current zeitgeist of wrapping oneself within the flag of an old song and dance; McCarthyism. The flag (blanket) of McCarthyism will not bring back your former status in the world.

    In America,the more things change, the more they stay the same. And staying the same is why Americans keep voting for the same politicians for decades. Old people= old thoughts.

    It’s not about change and evolving. It’s about comfort. Keeping of the status quo.

    Speaking of the acceptance of reality. We are now in a proxy-war against Russia. That is not opinion,but fact. Biden is in over his head.

  13. People “my age” often send around nostalgic paeans to the past, with astonishing prices for things “back then,” pictures of familiar items no longer available, ’50s cars, and romantic telling of how good things were when we were young. A small group of my friends from high school band (yes, we actually studied other things, too) sometimes fall into that uncritical nostalgia, but I often play the bad guy and remind them that other folks don’t see those times the way we can. For example, it was a less saccharine time in our dusty West Texas town for the Black kids who went to segregated schools, had to use the seldom-cleaned “Colored only” water fountains at Sears, and had no access to movie theaters, restaurants, or our beloved drive-ins. The refreshing thing about my old friends is that they all know we’re celebrating a world-as-we-wanted-to-see-it. We ain’t dead yet. Hmm. Maybe someone needs to form a rock band called “MAGAdeath.”

  14. Todd, you hit this nail on the head.
    “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure, while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell
    Greatest widow sticker, seen just yesterday: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
    So, what ever happened to the Luddites of 1811? They destroyed the then new machinery that they saw as taking their jobs from them. And the MAGA
    mob wants to destroy the machinery that they see as taking their world from them.
    “While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob will always shout for the ‘strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob
    hates society from which it is excluded, as well as (congress) where it is not represented.” Our society created the mob by outsourcing their jobs even as
    technology continued to evolve, (it will not go backwards…the spinning wheel and “Big Coal” will not return, no matter what the Orange rind claims) and
    the Reagan revolution destroyed unions and has kept wages ridiculously low.

  15. I don’t know if Harvey Firestine is a sage, because what he’s been saying has been said many times before.

    I think I’ve heard, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”

    James, who was the half-brother of Jesus christ, said “just as the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)

    So what is faith? Well, I’ll leave you to look that up, there is a religious context and a secular context.

    In scripture, the Greek word for faith is “Pi’stis” and has been used to describe Trust, firm Persuasion, and/or Fidelity.

    So, in Hebrews 11:1, it describes Faith as this; “faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.”

    So yes, Harvey is correct! And, he’s one in a long long line of folks that said the same things, even millennia ago.

    In Romans 10:17, it reads;”Faith follows the thing heard.” But, what was heard? We hear a lot of things! What you hear sometimes has the Ring Of Truth. But other things, are recognizable as fraudulent, hypocritical, self-aggrandizing, and plain ignorant. Unfortunately, there are many who put their faith and trust in the latter. (Example; Q)

    So yes, there are definitely a multitude of dead folks walking, soon to be literally dead.

    Mankind cannot control his own destiny, how many times does mankind make the same mistakes? Over and over and over again, SMH. Since World War 1, there has been constant war somewhere. Before World War 1? Well, look at the devastation caused by the settlers from Europe on the North American continent. Mankind brings his devil with him!

    Vladimir Putin is using his faith in Hitler to promote a war exactly the same as his idol did. The same with our former president. He read Hitler regularly! And, just like their Nazi German idol, they always accuse others of what they are guilty themselves.

    Is it language, culture, religion and skin tone that defines civilization? Or is it how A Civilization takes care of the less fortunate ones under its purview? Historically the less fortunate ones were always used as fodder and always deemed expendable.

    Humanity has never been fair, it’s never been concerned, never been empathetic, never been compassionate, on the whole, men’s feet always run to badness!

    Read Isaiah 59:5-8, if you never have, it strikes a very familiar note!

  16. Oh my gawd, the person who included all the Babble quotes is hilariously and dangerously ignorant, using the Babble to justify any kind of behavior is the ultimate human arrogance and ignorance…no wonder humans are doomed to near term extinction, we deserve to perish due to our collective ignorance and greed, but the other earthlings certainly don’t deserve to be wiped out along with us. How incredibly sad and maddening, we had so much potential 😢

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