In keeping with my general practice of coming very late to cultural phenomena, I finally read Tuesdays With Morrie last weekend. Actually, I didn’t read the book, but I listened to the author, Mitch Albom, read it. If you are not familiar with the story, Mitch Albom rediscovers his former professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, after seeing Schwartz interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Schwartz had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he viewed his imminent death as an opportunity to teach people about the meaning of life. After their reunion, in a series of Tuesday meetings, Albom and Schwartz discussed love, marriage, friendship, community, aging, death, and other topics with the intention of producing this book. On the recorded book, the tones of Albom’s voice convey the love and respect that he developed for Morrie in a manner that his words alone could not.
I listened to the book while escorting my three youngest children to Chicago for a cub scout outing, which culminated with a sleepover at the Shedd Aquarium. When I asked my 11-year old daughter early in the trip to insert the first disk in the CD player, she complained, “I don’t like listening to recorded books.” But within minutes, she was hooked, and during our stop-and-go tour of the city, she ensured that the CDs were playing as much as possible.
One interesting feature of this recorded book was that it included at the end some actual recordings of conversations between Mitch and Morrie. This bonus feature allowed us to hear Morrie in his own words and voice. Surprisingly, my daughter — who had been riveted to Mitch Albom’s account — was completely uninterested in listening to Morrie. The change in her interest level was so dramatic and so sudden that it set me to thinking.
Over the ensuing days, I have concluded that my daughter’s uneven reaction to Mitch and Morrie revealed something important about the way we learn simple lessons about life and love. This may relate to our recent discussion about testimony, too, though I am not intentionally headed in that direction.
Tuesdays With Morrie has a provocative subtitle: “an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” What is “life’s greatest lesson”? Is it something that Morrie taught Mitch? Presumably, though you would be hard-pressed to find it in Morrie’s platitudinous expressions:
* “Do I wither up and disappear, or do I make the best of my time left?”
* “Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.”
* “Because, most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.”
* “If you’re trying to show off for people at the top, forget it. They will look down at you anyhow. And if you’re trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it. They will only envy you. Status will get you nowhere. Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone.”
For more, see here.
All of these are fine things to say, but they are exactly the sorts of things you would expect Morrie to say, exactly the sorts of things you have heard other old men say, exactly the sorts of things that usually pass without effect. More importantly, I have a hard time locating in them “life’s greatest lesson.”
Over the past few days, as I have pondered Mitch Albom’s account of the effects of his conversations with Morrie on his own behavior and world view, it occurred to me that he was illustrating life’s greatest lesson. The “something” that Morrie taught Mitch could not be captured in an aphorism, but was evidenced by the change in Mitch. Perhaps he was changed by listening to Morrie’s words, but I suspect that the more last effect came from Morrie’s selfless attention. In one passage of the book, Mitch described how Morrie strove to focus on the person before him, to be always in the present and not thinking about something that just happened or was about to happen. Morrie was attentive to Mitch, and even in his own discomfort and pain, Morrie’s primary concern was being there for his friend and student. Apparently, he was that way with everyone. Perhaps I am unduly influenced by my own station in life as a professor and father, but that sort of devotion to others would get my vote as “life’s greatest lesson.”
As for my daughter’s reaction, I think that we love hearing people tell stories of personal change. We may even prefer a good conversion story to hearing about the teachings that prompted the conversion. Something about seeing those teachings in action. I suppose this is why the scriptures consist mostly of stories, not just lists of profound ideas. In any event, I am quite certain that my daughter was drawn to the drama surrounding Morrie’s death and that she was moved by Mitch’s obvious love for Morrie. There is a father’s lesson in that.