The Weekend With Morrie

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.

7 comments for “The Weekend With Morrie

  1. Jed
    March 4, 2005 at 12:03 pm

    The “being there” message has a lot of resonance for me. At one point in my life, I worked as a counselor for teenage boys who had been detailed in youth corrections for breaking the law multiple times. These were violent offenders, kids who stole cars, robbed businesses, or beat people up. Most of them had absentee fathers who had either disappeared soon after conception or who had moved in and out of the boy’s life for various reasons (alcohol was a big reason). The boys were very bitter. They wanted a dads so badly, and had turned to gangs for surrogate care instead. When I asked the boys what they wanted from their fathers, they usually answered the same way. “I just want him to be there.” They wanted attention and respect. Gangs gave them that.

    Gordon’s point about devotion being crucial also has support from the research on psychotherapeudic outcomes. Researchers have been looking for years at the various schools of therapy (behavioral, psychoanaltyic, cognitive-behavioral, etc.) trying to determine which yielded more positive results in patients. The studies always come to the same conclusion. The beliefs of the therapist, the actual content of the teaching, usually has a negligible effect (except when the beliefs are perceived negatively). What matters most is whether the patient feels understood. People want to be regarded, they want to feel understood. If they do not feel regarded it doesn’t matter what you say about “life’s greatest lesson.” The lesson won’t be heard.

    This research does not mean, of course, that feeling understood must be life’s great lesson. But it does mean you’d better create a safe, attentive climate, as Morrie did, before you attempt to teach life’s great lesson.

  2. annegb
    March 4, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    Morrie was a loving person, and it would be easy to say that love was the lesson, but I have always thought the greater lesson was in Morrie’s inability to be anything but what he was.

    I think life’s greatest lesson is a misnomer, it should be lessons, there is so much to learn. But if you can learn to be completely who you are, without regard to the opinions of others, you’re way ahead of the game.

  3. Arturo Toscanini
    March 5, 2005 at 10:56 am

    jed’s talk about how hopeless people can feel when nobody is there for them reminds me of “Waiting for Godot.” Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly for Godot every evening. But Godot repeatedly sends a boy instead, only the boy never remembers who Vladimir and Estragon are. When Boy asks Vladimir, “What am I to tell Mr. Godot, Sir?” Vladimir responds, “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that… that you saw me… You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”

  4. Matt Evans
    March 5, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    “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 . . . that sort of devotion to others would get my vote as ‘life?s greatest lesson.'”

    I agree with you Gordon, and have always taken that message from a favorite line in the Book of Mormon: Christ “took their little children, one by one.” (3 Nephi 17:21)

  5. Chris Estep
    March 5, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    As one who grew up in Michigan, I’ve read and listened to Mitch Albom for many years as a sports writer. One thing that Albom has carried from sports writing to book authoring is this: He has this penchant for taking the obvious and trying to make it sound profound. I’ve tried reading both of his book and found the same. What you say is profound, not how you say it. Albom never says anything new.

  6. mark
    August 3, 2005 at 7:53 am

    The title of the book dont actually entrust the whole package of the idea of the book. It just an enticer so people can freak out, about “ahh.. this one’s good” knowing that \after weeks of reading this specialized material… they will realize that its about them. ABout being a true and natural person around the things in life that can ever gurantee you.
    The thing in here is that you should know that purpose of your life. You should know the consequence of certain things if you chose an option knowing that it’s only a matter of newly acquired things…..

  7. November 25, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    If you liked Tuesdays with Morrie, chances are you will enjoy “Goodbye, Walter” The Inspiring Story of a Terminal Cancer Patient.” (Mapletree, 2005). Like Mitch Albom, author RuthAnn Hogue is a 33-year-year-old journalist searching for more meaning in her life during the time she visits terminally ill Walter Schifter (who incidentally is the same age as Morrie Schwartz was when he died). RuthAnn brings a different perspective, however, because she was raised LDS and through her visits with Walter, she is inspired to return to her spiritual roots. Both Mitch and RuthAnn feel a renewed sense of importance on family life and each is inspired by the men they visit regularly to document both their lives and deaths in a very public manner. If you want a good read that will surely touch your heart and soul, I recommend Tuesdays with Morrie without hesitation. I hope those who read Goodbye, Walter: The Inspirring Story of a Terminal Cancer Patient will agree. I must add, that the most frequently asked question of those who attend Goodbye, Walter book-signing events is whether I have read Tuesdays with Morrie. So it isn’t really me making the connection. My readers make it for me, time and time again

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