Posted in Book Reviews, The Second Half

Learn How to Live Well Before You Die

Snip20160710_13Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom

Much of the message of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” is an exhortation to die well. But the equally important message is to learn how to live well before you die. Morrie decided that he wanted his tombstone to say, “A Teacher to the Last” (Albom, Kindle Location 1421). His final project was to teach about life and death. And the lesson begins with understanding what is important.

Understanding that he was dying helped Morrie to keep focus on the important things in life. “And facing death changes all that? ‘Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.’ He sighed. ‘Learn how to die, and you learn how to live’” (Albom, Kindle Location 918).

Morrie Schwartz returned from a friend’s funeral and exclaimed, “What a waste,” he said, “All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it” (Albom, Kindle Location 256).  Morrie was determined not miss his eulogy. “On a cold Sunday afternoon, he was joined in his home by a small group of friends and family for a “living funeral.” Each of them spoke and paid tribute to my old professor” (Albom, Kindle Location 258).  The message being an exhortation to “Love Now and to Act Now” The only substantive way to live is to both to give love and receive love. If you find a place in other people’s hearts, you make room for them in your heart then you both live and die well and your legacy is established.

Morrie Schwartz made a remarkable observation about suffering. “Now that I’m suffering, I feel closer to people who suffer than I ever did before… I feel their anguish as if it were my own” (Albom, Kindle Locations 606-616). Morrie’s experience returns a case study to support the scripture about how God uses suffering and comfort to enable us to best comfort others.

If Morrie Schwartz can respond with greater compassion to his suffering with a capital ‘S’, then there is a message of hope for me that I can respond to my own suffering with a small ‘s’ in kind. If I learn to suffer well then perhaps I will learn to die well and ultimately to live well.

David Foster Wallace would describe Morrie as being fully human, fully present, and fully free. Morrie was fully present in his relationships. “I believe in being fully present,” Morrie said. “That means you should be with the person you’re with” (Albom, Kindle Location 1427).  Mitch agreed, “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world” (Albom, Kindle Location 1425).

Even in the midst of his suffering Morrie was determined to respond with compassion to everyone. In the Tuesday conversations we learn that he responds to hundreds of followers who share their stories. He extends hope to them and embraces a sense of purpose as a teacher for present and future generations.

Central to Morrie’s message is that we must form our own culture to counter the culture around us. A consumer centric culture is not sufficient to sustain what matters most. “Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture,” Morrie said. “I don’t mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things—how we think, what we value—those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone—or any society—determine those for you” (Albom, Kindle Location 1625).

Late Adulthood developmental theory spends much time to describe the decline that occurs as a person ages past 65 years especially as death approaches. In Morrie’s case his strength was that his wisdom increased with his age. “Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s also the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it” (Albom, Kindle Location 1262).

“Tuesdays with Morrie” is a story of relationship, growing dependence, and death. We get a full view of Morrie’s life arc. Human development has an arc that begins as infants totally dependent on others for survival. As we progress through childhood our dependence lessens and scaffolding designed to protect us is removed. As adulthood arrives and progresses toward Middle Adulthood we are self-sufficient and reorient ourselves to a giving posture as we make way for our children and our society to grow and thrive.  But Late Adulthood marks the downward slope of the arc. We see this same pattern with Morrie. As the disease takes hold we see the slow decline. “As my old professor searched for answers, the disease took him over, day by day, week by week. He backed the car out of the garage one morning and could barely push the brakes. That was the end of his driving. He kept tripping, so he purchased a cane. That was the end of his walking free” (Albom, Kindle Location 215). As the disease progressed Morrie had a large team of helpers feeding him, massaging him, moving him, and wiping him. For Morrie he had traveled full circle and was again like a babe. “In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?” (Albom, Kindle Location 1646). But Morrie receive blessing by the love that was returned. “It’s like going back to being a child again. Someone to bathe you. Someone to lift you. Someone to wipe you. We all know how to be a child. It’s inside all of us. For me, it’s just remembering how to enjoy it” (Albom, Kindle Location 1239).  Albom describes the remainder of the decline in a few words, “ALS is like a lit candle: it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax. Often, it begins with the legs and works its way up. You lose control of your thigh muscles, so that you cannot support yourself standing. You lose control of your trunk muscles, so that you cannot sit up straight. By the end, if you are still alive, you are breathing through a tube in a hole in your throat” (Albom, Kindle Location 228).

“Tuesdays With Morrie” is a narrative that supports many of the conclusions of current developmental science. But it also makes clear the weakness of development theory to return an answer to the questions: How must we live? and How should we die? Theories of human development observe the various stages from infancy to late adulthood and death. In this context they do well to identify what is needed to help us thrive and progress through each stage. We need attachment as an infant. We need scaffolding as a child and adolescent. We need to conquer each development stage with accomplishment that moves us forward. But the theory is weak when predicting recovery from setback or loss. The theorist can’t easy explain why one person, like Morrie, thrives to the end and others wither as they die.  Scientists can gather data to describe statistically what the narratives of thriving people have in common but that cannot return a blueprint that guarantees success.

Being human does not easily fit into the box of cause and effect. There is more to our life than observation alone can return. It is very hard to determine scientifically what results in meaning and purpose. “Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? I wrote it down, but now I can recite it: Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning” (Albom, Kindle Location 1344).

Scientific theory cannot predict the transformative choice to walk away from self and devote ourselves to another. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939” provides the recurring theme in Morrie’s conversations with Mitch. “We must love one another or die.” Being human is about being in relationship. The best relationships are the relationships that reciprocate.

I find it interesting that Morrie the Professor and the Scientist, does not find his comfort in science. Rather he melts in a sea of compassion as he connects to each one in his life. He extends value and receives value. It is the subjective aspects of his existence that return to him meaning. Morrie has found the key to wholeness is about relationship and being loved.  The application has profound meaning and affirms the conviction that love rescues and redeems.

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