Morrie Schwartz was an interesting fellow who was dying of a terminal illness, and was visited many times by a former student. Their relationship and the advice and insight Morrie provided Mitch Albom, the student-turned-writer, made for a very popular book, Tuesdays with Morrie. This was just one in a long line of books and movies that deal with death. Though death can be perceived as frightening, an appalling deprivation of one’s life, and the ultimate loss of control, it can also have a positive side. This blog explores the positive side of death, showing that it can lead to living more authentically and passionately. This is the heart of existentialism.
Morrie’s perhaps most striking paragraph in the very readable book is the following:
So many people walk around with a meaningless life. 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 in 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.
Sage advice. One can see why Albom wanted to write a book about the experience! Not everyone loved it – though Albom is obviously tapping into a rich vein of interest, since he indicates his books have sold over 35 million copies. Here is what one fairly insightful and balanced reviewer wrote on a popular book reviewing site:
“This is one of those books where I find myself agreeing with the five-star reviews and the one-star reviews with almost equal enthusiasm. On one hand, it’s the sweet story of a man as he reconnects with a former mentor/professor, who is facing a death sentence via ALS. It’s obvious that Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie provided them both with something substantially satisfying. And that’s inspiring and poignant. Yet on the other hand, Albom’s attempts to enlighten us transform it into a Hallmark card on steroids, a rather dramatic and prolonged one that does little more to demystify the true meaning of life than offer up tired and somewhat ambiguous cliches like ‘love conquers all.’ Though an honorable sentiment, it’s not markedly more substantive or instructive than the alternative, ‘life sucks and then you die.’
Let’s face it. Death scares the *%&# out of most of us…as it should, especially when you consider that no one really knows what it’s like to be dead, if it’s like anything at all. Add to that the fact that in the grand scope of things we’re all insignificant blimps/statistically insignificant(tens of thousands of people die every day around the world and yet most of their deaths go relatively unnoticed) and the glaring reality that it takes markedly more than “love” to make it through life, and these comforting cliches suddenly lose some of their ‘comfort.’ However, that doesn’t mean life has to be or feel meaningless, it simply means it is up to each of us to find and give our lives meaning…whatever that may mean.
Tuesdays with Morrie definitely encourages the reader to stop and think about what is important, yet falls short of providing any new insight into how one actually figures it out for themselves and/or how we reach that balance between living as if there is a tomorrow while simultaneously realizing that, at least for some us, there won’t be. Alas, I gave it 3 stars [out of 5]. A book worth reading, but not a life-changing or even an attitude-changing one. I should add that this book might hold more appeal to someone who, like Morrie, is coming to immediate terms with his own mortality as they may find inspiration in his personal story.”
“There are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.” ~ Morrie Schwartz
I think that at least the book can be said to effectively tap into the idea for many potential readers the fundamental existential fact that when one is cognizant that one is dying, life can be lived more authentically. It can lead to a more passionate existence. Things can really be clarified and given proper value. The small things can seem as they are, and the important things can come to the fore. This is a great use of the book; to deepen up and realize that life woudn’t be life if it never ended, and that if we realize that, fewer days will slip by in which we are in a soporific slump or bored or worried.
It can’t be said better than Albom writes Morrie as saying in the book: “The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
It has been said that “Sooner or later, life makes a philosopher of us all.” Prominent Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (of War and Peace, Anna Karenina) believed much the same. The impactful book The Death of Ivan Illych is a tale of artifice and inauthentic living that comes full-circle and leads to some interesting reflections by the protagonist, Ivan Ilych. The publisher describes it thusly:
“Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his dying so much as a passing thought. But one day, death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise, he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?”
“To honor the self is to live authentically, to speak and act from our innermost convictions and feelings.”
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich is, in the best tradition of the Christian momento mori, a study in how the idea of death may reorient our priorities away from the worldly and towards the spiritual, away from whist and dinner parties and towards truth and love” noted contemporary French philosopher, Alain de Botton. Luis also does a great job providing this review of this book on the same site I referenced:
“Written in 1886, [it] was the first major fictional work published by Tolstoy during his post-conversion. Tolstoy’s religious philosophy which illustrates the values of brotherly love, Christian charity, and mutual support are the frameworks for the writing of this novel. Just as Tolstoy’s discovery of the true meaning of life led him to fulfillment and an acceptance of death, Ivan Ilych’s awakening comes through the realization of death which ignites within him fear, anger, contemplation and eventually acceptance. Death is the central theme of the story, and through it one can discern the artificial from the authentic characters and the dichotomy between the inner and outer man.”
Nicely said. One can definitely see Tolstoy trying to urge us to live more authentically and with character. A smart reviewer named Petra enlightens us with this summation:
“Ivan Ilych progresses through the endless scream of Why me? almost at the end. And then he sees his rather petty life of moderate success and excess as it really was. He stops hating his selfish wife and self-centered daughter, and ceasing to be afraid of death, hopes his demise will bring them peace. With an examination of his life and the letting go of his more petty and trivial emotions, he elevates himself. And dies.”
“So why do we hunger so much for something as insubstantial as wisdom? I think it is because humans, unlike all other creatures on Earth, have that second relentless cognitive clock ticking inside their heads, counting down in a covert yet unassailably certain way the hours and minutes of our remaining time on Earth. Just as we literally hunger for food and water to forestall physiological death, we figuratively hunger for wisdom to forestall spiritual and existential death.” ~ Stephen S. Hall
Big-time writer Anais Nin said that “My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living.” That’s an important lesson about life. Yes, reading books, writing, meditating, and philosophizing are significant and often helpful processes, but death can, ironically perhaps, help each of us to get more serious about life. Consider this interesting view of wisdom by the enormously influential French writer Michel de Montaigne:
“Cicero says that to philosophize is nothing else but to prepare for death. This is because study and contemplation draw our soul out of us to some extent and keep it busy outside the body; which is a sort of apprenticeship and semblance of death. Or else it is because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Here is an interesting “thought experiment” posed by philosopher Samuel Scheffler. “Suppose you knew that, although yourself would live a normal lifespan, the Earth would be completely destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life?”
I am taking a wonderful class at the moment entitled “Meaning in Life.” The able professor, Mattias Risse, had this interesting thing to say. I couldn’t help but write it down – a compulsion of mine.
“Thinking about the authentic life is actually a very difficult thing to do. Some people think that the authentic life is just to say ‘No’ to everything that happens around them. That’s not an authentic life. That’s just another way of becoming dependent [on others]. It’s very hard, actually, to spell out what an authentic life would be; it’s a very cumbersome process to actually come to one’s own viewpoint and have any kind of reliable sense that ‘I have this standpoint because I really thought it through, carefully, for myself’ rather than one way or another buying into somebody else’s story – if only by rejecting it.”
“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you” counseled the author
Here are a few other quotes about the authentic life, living passionately, death, mortality, and so on:
“While we’re talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.”
“Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!”
“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”
“To the joyless man death is a blessing.”
“Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”
“We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
“We grow in stature, wisdom, and compassion when we embrace all that life brings – struggles, sadness, and even the pain of death as well as joy, love, and the wonder of birth. It’s all part of the great mystery of life that we are called upon to embrace fully….”
“The idea of death brings an authenticity to social life: there may be no better way to clear our calendar of engagements than to speculate as to who among our acquaintances would make the trip to our hospital bed.”
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
“The closer I am to death, the more I want to live; the hungrier I am for life.”
“To live, and act, and serve the future hour;/ And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,/ Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,/ We feel we are greater than we know.”
“Live free or die. Death is not the worst of evils.”
“I often feel a great fire burning within me to share what I have so laboriously learned on my journey so far. Not out of benevolence but for the reward of hope; hope that another’s life journey may benefit. My problem is that no one stops to warm themselves by this fire and when I fan the flames and try to share, most only see a wisp of smoke. I will, although, persevere in my search for the reward of hope – that if I share my wisdom, someone somewhere may notice a new path or better appreciate the joy of the path they are on.” ~ Robert L. Lloyd
“What a stirring sight is a dead eagle; it got a chance to fly, and it does not have to wait to die.”
“Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, ‘Did you bring joy?’ The second was, ‘Did you find joy?'” ~ Leo Buscaglia
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“True, we men are assailed by grief in our lives, and we lament. But in the end, lamentation must cease, giving way to peace and acceptance of our lot. Socrates sets the great example: where consuming sorrow seems in place, there springs the great, loving peace which opens the soul. Death has lost its meaning. It is not veiled over, but the authentic life is not a life toward death; it is a life toward the good.”
“As a day well-spent brings a happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death.”
“Some people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.”
Look up quotes about passion, death, the authentic life, seizing the day, and philosophizing before it’s too late here on this site’s awesome quote search engine, The Wisdom Archive.