Emory Report

January 19, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 16

First person:

Life's lessons can always be learned, even at the end

It was the night before Christmas, a perfect time to begin reading a holiday gift from an Emory senior. The student had written on the front flyleaf of Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson: "Thank you for everything you've done over the last few years I have every intention of coming back to speak at your retirement party."

But after reading the 192-page tribute by Mitch Albom, a Detroit Free Press sports writer, to Morrie Schwartz, his favorite Brandeis professor from two decades earlier, I felt less like a teacher and more like a first-year student with many lessons left to learn.

Dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, Morrie, 78, allows Albom to study him over 14 Tuesdays as he narrates the end of his life.

Albom's flashbacks recall the extraordinary teacher Morrie had been. He entered a classroom, sat down and said nothing. Students giggled, then fell silent, fidgeting nervously or looking out the window, pretending to be oblivious. Fifteen minutes passed. "What's happening here?" Morrie finally whispered. A memorable discussion began--as he had intended--about silence's effect on human relations.

But Morrie's last class, taught from his bed at home, focuses not on psychology but on life's meaning. Albom, an ambitious Type A, not only writes a newspaper column but also hosts a daily radio show, appears regularly on ESPN and turns out best-selling books. Morrie talks to him about having a tiny bird on his shoulder that asks each day, "Am I being the person I want to be?"

"So many people walk around with a meaningless life," Morrie says. "They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

On the fifth Tuesday with Albom, Morrie talks about family as foundation: "It's become quite clear to me as I've been sick. If you don't have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don't have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, 'Love each other or perish.'"

On the eighth Tuesday, Albom shows Morrie a newspaper headline about Ted Turner, billionaire CNN founder, who bemoans his failure to acquire CBS: "I don't want my tombstone to read, 'I never owned a network.'"

Morrie responds: "You can't substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I'm sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you're looking for, no matter how much of them you have."

On the ninth Tuesday, Morrie jokes about what he wants on his tombstone ("A Teacher to the Last"). He doesn't worry about being forgotten. "I've got so many people who have been involved with me in close, intimate ways," he says. "And love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone."

On the 12th Tuesday, Morrie recalls ending a friendship with Norman, who had failed to contact Morrie when his wife had had a serious operation: "Over the years, I met Norman a few times and he always tried to reconcile, but I didn't accept it."

Crying, Morrie remembers Norman's death from cancer. "I never got to see him. I never got to forgive. It pains me now so much.

"It's not just other people we need to forgive," he whispers to Albom. "We also need to forgive ourselves. [f]or all the things we didn't do. All the things we should have done. You can't get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn't help you when you get to where I am.

"I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you."

Morrie Schwartz died serenely at home, surrounded by his books, notes and hibiscus plant, with his children and wife sleeping in shifts around his bed. Reviewing Morrie's course on the meaning of life, Albom concludes that Morrie was changing until his final goodbye.

Morrie's last message, Albom writes, was: "There is no such thing as 'too late' in life." No better words for a new year's beginning.

Loren Ghiglione directs Emory's journalism program.

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