Lessons from the grave
Never have the boundaries between the private and public been so blurred. Agonizing deaths from cancer used to occur off-stage. No longer.
In some cases, at least, that blurring of lines has been salutary. Three million viewers have watched Randy Pausch’s appropriately named “The Last Lecture” delivered to a packed auditorium at Carnegie-Mellon University, after the 47-year-old professor (and everyone in the audience) knew that he had only a few months to live. One watches transfixed by the knowledge that someone so alive, so exuberant will soon be dead. Not once in the nearly hour and a half lecture does he lapse, even momentarily, into anything resembling self-pity.
He convinces us that he would not trade his life, no matter how truncated, for any other. With the exception of playing in the NFL, he has realized every one of his childhood dreams – winning lots of stuffed animals in amusement parks, meeting Captain Kirk of Star Trek, being an Imagineer at Disney World. (After The Last Lecture became famous, he even got to scrimmage with the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
He will not live to see his greatest contribution to mankind – software programs that will allow millions to learn difficult material in such a fun manner that they will not even know they they are learning – in mass production. But he is cool with that: Like Moses, he offers, he can see the promised land, even if he will not enter it.
In the Jewish tradition, we wish ourselves and others “length of days and years.” The former refers to the amount of living packed into each day. And by that standard, Randy Pausch lived a very long life.
Religious faith is one of the subjects that Pausch explicitly excluded from The Last Lecture. The only deathbed conversion to which he would admit was to Macintosh. Much of what he has to impart, of course, would make good sermon material. The biggest thrill of a popular 10-year course, in which student teams create virtual realities, was helping students experience the joy of making others happy. If he could give one piece of advice, it would be: “Tell the truth – at all times.” His summary of his life lessons: If you do the right thing, good things have a way of happening (though not necessarily in the way you expect).
UNLIKE PAUSCH, Tony Snow Jr., US President George W. Bush’s former press secretary, who passed away recently from colon cancer at 53, left no final speech. But he did address the “unique gift” of a life-threatening illness several times in his syndicated column – and from the point of view of a man of faith.
Winston Churchill once observed that there is nothing that quite sharpens one’s perceptions so much as being shot at without effect. The heightened perception of a bullet whizzing past one’s head is momentary; that of cancer, however, lasts at least five years until remission is assured. In the meantime, Snow wrote, “The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense.”
He relished the clarity he had been granted, “the field of vision others don’t have [about] the mystical power of love… the gravitational pull of faith… the power of hope and limits of fear, [and] a firm set of convictions about what really matters and what does not.” He came to see the prospect of death as an opportunity to “fight for the things that give life its richness, meaning and joy.”
As they confronted death, Pausch and Snow both felt a strong need to share some of the lessons they had gleaned from the process of dying. Pausch confided that the theme of his talk – “realizing your dreams” – was really an example of what he called “head fake” learning. His real subject: How to live your life. For his part, Snow rejoiced in the “street credibility” he had gained when it comes to counseling cancer patients. He wrote of his obligation to share the insights he had gained with others, “the most important of which is: There are things far worse than illness – for instance, soullessness.”
While the approach of death might be expected to increase self-involvement, the lesson both men drew was the opposite. “Focus on others,” said Pausch. “Life does not revolve around us. It envelopes us,” wrote Snow. They were clear about the immense amount of good that lies within most people. Snow discovered in sickness how much “people want to do good for others; they just need excuses.” And one of Pausch’s cardinal rules was: “Wait long enough, and people will both surprise and impress you.”
Both achieved much in the short span of years allotted to them, but in the end it was the relationships made that counted most – friends, mentors and, above all, family. Pausch concluded his lecture by revealing his second “head fake” – “This wasn’t for you; it was for my kids” – as the names of his three children appeared on a blackened overhead screen.
“We count our hardships, but not our blessings, Snow wrote in one column. And chief among those was the love of his wife and children.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Tony Snow’s reflections on dying through William Kristol’s eulogy in The New York Times. The Christian Snow had caused the Jewish Kristol to question his lifetime assumption that melancholy and existential angst are the hallmarks of intellectual depth. “Could it be that a stance of faith-based optimism is in fact superior to one of worldly pessimism or sophisticated fatalism?” Kristol wondered.
And I wondered, with sadness, whether Kristol had ever been exposed to the riches of his own tradition on the challenges faced by Randy Pausch and Tony Snow – what the rabbis called “accepting afflictions with love.”
Has he read Making Sense of Suffering, a book version of classes given by Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, after he had “earned” the right to speak on the subject by being diagnosed with terminal cancer in his early 40s? Could he imagine a young woman who did not even know she was Jewish until her early 20s, but who as she lay dying, surrounded by her husband and young children, less than 20 years later, could say, “I really have to work on my fear of God because I’m so overwhelmed by His love?” Has he witnessed the quiet strength of someone stricken with the dread disease still struggling to make it to the early morning minyan on time, while hiding his plight from others?
A woman once told Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish Hatorah, about a new group for strengthening the family. One of their main ideas was a day every week, in which the family spent time together, cut off from external distractions like TV, cellphones and Internet. Another was regular periods of sexual abstinence between husbands and wives to keep the fires of passion stoked, while forcing the couple to relate on other levels as well. “Why couldn’t Judaism have something like that?” she asked the dumbfounded rabbi.
We owe Randy Pausch and Tony Snow an immense debt of gratitude for their courage, eloquence and examples of how living well is the best preparation for death. The debt will be even greater if they spur Jews to examine their own tradition concerning death and dying.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 21, 2008.