Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Notes on ‘The Last Lecture’

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 21, 2008

            For those of you who thought you might actually get through two consecutive sermons without the (seemingly inevitable) reference to “The Book” (I don’t mean the one we’re considering this morning, I mean the one by ME), the answer is: Not yet.

            Let me tell you another (short) story about that mini-barrage publicity that accompanied the (still fairly) recent publication of my book, The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen:

            It was during The Interview (the one with Lianne Hansen from Weekend Edition at N.P.R., which constituted about nine minutes, forty seconds of my fifteen minutes of fame). Lianne (if I may call her that) had just played a piece of music (perhaps it was the scream from “Jungleland”) and had made some remark about how rich and enlivening Springsteen’s music often is. I agreed heartily, and added off-handedly that sometimes I wonder why I even wrote this book, and that maybe I should have just told people to go out and listen to Bruce, and that that would be enough.

            At which point I happened to look through the large glass window at the engineer in the control room—a friendly, burly fellow with a full beard—the only other person actually present in that studio, as I spoke via a telephone connection with Ms. Hansen who was in Washington. He was, at that point, nodding his head vigorously in agreement: apparently, he didn’t understand why I bothered to write the book, either!

            That’s kind of how I feel about The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. I think it would probably be sufficient for me to stand up, implore you all to read this book (if you haven’t done so already), and sit down. That would probably be enough; and add more to your understanding of these lives we lead, than any additional commentary I might add.

            Or, it would be quite sufficient for me this morning just to go on reading and reading, more and more excerpts from this book. There are dozens of sermons here, all presented with plenty of pathos, and pith, and lots of good humor.

            It is a book with lots of good lessons. Even without its remarkable context, The Last Lecture would be a book worth reading, and well worth the price. If you come away from this sermon with no more than the determination to read this book, then this may be the most useful sermon you’ll hear all year.

The individual parts of The Last Lecture add up to a lot in and of themselves. But this book is also much more than the sum of its parts. It might well be a book that can change your life; or, at least, change the way you look at life.

As I said, it is a book with an amazing history:

Randy Pausch was born in Maryland in 1960, and grew up in the city of Columbia , between Baltimore and Washington. He studied at Brown, received his doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg , then began his teaching career at the University of Virginia . He then returned to Carnegie Mellon as an associate professor, married a woman named Jai, and had three children, Dylan, Logan, and Chloe.

He grew into a highly-respected computer scientist, a much-loved teacher, and was known as a perfectionist, a hard worker and a brilliant innovator.  Things were going well for him, and an outstanding career seemed to lie ahead.

But then, in September 2006, he received devastating news: Doctors told him that he had incurable pancreatic cancer, the form of cancer with perhaps the worst prognosis of all, and a mortality rate of close to 100% within five years. Pausch was told that he had perhaps six months of relative good health left. In the end, he lived just short of two more years, and died this past July, at the age of 47.

About a year after first receiving his diagnosis, Dr. Pausch returned to Carnegie Mellon, to take part in that school’s “Last Lecture” series, in which professors were asked to think about what in their teaching matters most, and to deliver a hypothetical final talk, or “Last Lecture”. Except for Randy Pausch, it wasn’t hypothetical; it really was his opportunity to sum up a lifetime’s experience. He titled his “Last Lecture”: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”, and delivered it at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007.

He told the packed auditorium of the joy he felt at having had the opportunity to fulfill most of his childhood dreams—being in zero gravity; writing an article for the World Book Encyclopedia; working for the Walt Disney Company. The only one that eluded him was playing in the National Football League (three weeks after the lecture, the Pittsburg Steelers invited him to join practice for a day, so he got to do that one, too).

Pausch was upbeat and humorous throughout the lecture, alternating between wisecracks and often self-deprecating jokes, insights on computer science and engineering education, advice on building multi-disciplinary collaborations, working in groups and interacting with other people, offering inspirational life lessons, and performing push-ups on stage. “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you,” he added.

Once a video of “The Last Lecture” appeared on the internet, the response was phenomenal. Millions viewed it on various websites. He was named “Person of the Week” on ABC News. He appeared on Oprah, and was interviewed by Diane Sawyer.
And through it all, he didn’t die. He seemed to echo Bob Dylan’s line: “He who’s not busy being born, is busy dying.” With the end beckoning all so near, Randy Pausch went on living, and loving, and learning. He even collaborated with Jeffrey Zaslow from The Wall Street Journal on a book, an expanded version of his lecture, which further distilled the precious lessons which his life has wrought.

It’s a quick and easy read, directly stated, free of jargon and high-sounding verbiage; 200 pages of sheer wisdom, and good humor, and deep emotion; 200 pages chock full of life; so many wonderful insights to share.

He tells us about his upbringing: his parents—who both loved him, and nurtured him, and gave his every opportunity they could, and who also did everything they could to keep him centered, and humble, and impress upon him the importance of loyalty, and determination, and old-fashioned hard work.

When he complained to his parents about how hard his PhD exams had been, and how drained he felt by the experience, his mother leaned over, patted him on the arm, and said: “We know just how you feel, honey. Remember, when your father was your age, he was fighting the Germans.” After he got his PhD, Randy’s mother would introduce him by saying, “This is my son. He’s a doctor, but not the kind that helps people.”

“[G]rowing up, I thought there were two kinds of families,” Pausch writes: those who need a dictionary to get through dinner, [and] those who don’t.” “If you have a question,” his folks would tell him, “then find the answer.” Look it up!

From that natural inquisitiveness would come a lifetime of learning—not just of the book kind (which, I have found, is useful in a very limited range of situations) but deep-seated lessons—wisdom—about life.

Pausch sings a hymn of praise here to the power of the imagination—of honoring our own, and even more important for those of us who are parents, letting our children have full reign of theirs.

He calls upon us to have specific dreams: the more specific, the better; because then we can have some clue, some idea, as to how to make them real.

Always remember, too, that you’re not only learning from others, you’re teaching them, too. So pay attention to what you really want people to get from your interactions with them; what lessons do you really want them to take away. And remember that most important bottom line: that what we do always impresses people a hell of a lot more than what we say.

Pausch talks about being a leader, and what real leadership entails. He reminds us that, on the old Star Trek series, Captain Kirk was a real leader, but he wasn’t the smartest guy on the ship (that was Mr. Spock). He wasn’t the one with all the medical knowledge, or the chief engineer, and he sure wasn’t the best looking.

But Captain Kirk knew how to delegate. He had the passion to inspire. He didn’t have to know more than everyone else, or be the best at every thing, or control everything, or get all the credit.  But he established the vision, and set the tone. As Pausch looked out at his own prognosis, which told him he probably had at most a year or two left to live, he remembered Kirk’s declaration in one of the Star Trek films: “I don’t believe in a no-win situation.”

Randy Pausch had received what amounted to a death sentence. But even that wouldn’t be a no-win situation for him. Of course, the thought of leaving behind his dear wife and his beautiful children pained him deeply. He tells about sobbing in the shower, and he and Jai crying themselves to sleep at night, then waking up hours later and crying some more.

But Randy Pausch vowed not to go to sleep while he was still awake; not to die while he was still alive; only to come to that point of death only after having fully lived every day he had been given.

It sounds pat, perhaps; almost cliché. But when we consider the real-life, real-death context in which Dr. Pausch learned these lessons, and lived them, then their truth can truly light the way for us all.

It is one of the great paradoxes of this human life (which is so full of paradoxes) that it is only when something is done and over that we truly come to appreciate it. Why must it be that we are forced to speak of so many of the truly amazing, inspiring, joyful experiences of our lives in the past tense, that is, when they’re already history, already dead and gone?  As Jackson Browne laments:

“It's a day of loss, it's your day of birth.
Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?”

The Last Lecture reminds us—implores us—that it need not be that way. That as fully-evolving men and women, we have the calling “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” to quote from a rather quaint old poem.

The wisdom continues to tumble out of this dear little book:

The need to be positive—right now!—even when the outlook is bleak: Not “The park closes at 8 p.m.”—but “The park is open until 8 p.m.” Not: “I am going to die.” But: “I am still alive, right now.”

Pour the can of soda over the backseat of your brand new car, and get it over with, Randy tells us. Don’t let fear of what might be ever, ever, blind you to the joy of what is, right now!

Remember that all the brick walls we come upon in life are put there for the same reason: to remind us how badly we want something that’s on the other side. And to raise us up to the level of engaging our full bodies, minds, and hearts to achieving it.

This is the wisdom of a lifetime—a lifetime which, in the case of Randy Pausch, ended far too soon. But it’s never about how long a life is lived, but about how well it is lived. The wisdom that Randy Pausch discovered in his own life’s story, as his final days beckon, is, I believe, wisdom we all have within us—if we but take the time and opportunities we need sometimes to pause in all our busyness, to slow down, just for a bit, and discern what it is that life has taught us.

Randy Pausch inspires us all to sit down and think through what we would say in our “last lecture”—our “last sermon”. What are the lessons our lives have taught, that are worth sharing with all the generations that will follow us?

These are the two great lessons The Last Lecture teaches us (amidst all those really great little lessons it offers):

1. Until we learn that each moment is precious, there is no hope for us.

2. The life of any of us is a full-scale epic, with its own fair share of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, and lessons worth learning.

The life of any of us is an epic. And, as Randy Pausch also adds these lives we lead are also, at times, episodes of I Love Lucy, with their fair share of absurdity and mayhem—and just plain joy.

This is such a happy book for such a sad turn of events. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, without humor, life would be a mistake. Without humor, and without the swaddling clothes of memory and hope that hold us close, what use would life be? The memory that reminds us that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood—and it’s never too late to recast those childhood dreams in the light of the life you are living,right now. (If you want to remember your childhood, and recapture something of its magic, Randy Pausch says in The Last Lecture, then stick your nose into a box of crayons, and take a good whiff. You can pick up your childhood dreams then where you left off.)

And the hope that reminds us that whatever we know this life can do—whatever the limitations our physical bodies might face—we still believe in a Promised Land. Like Moses, we might not get there. But in every living, breathing moment of a life well-lived, we have been blessed to look over to the other side, and see something of its beauty. So, too, our earthly loves—the families we nurture; the friendships we share; the communities we build; the work we do fully and well—can give us just a glimpse of heavenlike glory. And stands as an immortal testimony that far transcends the little lives of any of us, a living testament; written in the hearts of those we leave behind, and those who will come after.

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